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In a Hollow

Squirrels_in_hole_small_3If ever there was proof that I need to invest in a digital camera with a decent telephoto lens, it's this photo. The idea of squirrels curled up within a hole in a tree is enduring, and has been popularised by some animated cartoons. But one rarely actually sees it. There were at least four young squirrels sharing this fortuitously discovered drey with their mother (pictured here above one of the babies); it was situated about four metres up the tree. The litter was probably born over the winter, and were just emerging to view the outside world as spring began. The tree in question was in the middle of a street in Knoxville - actually a rather safe place for squirrels, as few predators cross the street except when necessary.

Smoky Mountain Wildlife

Deer_smallIt's not hard to find deer in Tennesee - they can often be seen by the side of the road, although seldom in numbers such as these. The deer up in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park are used to cars driving past, and remain comfortably unfazed. Although no means as tame as the deer at Todai-ji temple in Nara, Japan (for instance), who push boldly against visitors like beggars politely demanding to be fed, they nonetheless have no fear of humans here.

Salamander_smallHarder to spot, however, are tiny salamanders, like this one here. Although she looks a tad confused, I assure you this was a temporary stumble, and she was perfectly motive, scurrying across my hands, presumably looking for somewhere damper to hide. This was the first time I'd seen a salamander - we don't have them in the UK - although I have considerable prior experience with newts, which are close relatives. Salamanders, however, can be terrestrial rather than aquatic or riparian - as in the case of this fellow, who was busy hunting beneath the forest canopy for insects.

RingneckedNot much farther up the trail, I found the salamander's natural predator - in this case, a juvenile ring-necked snake. Perhaps only two inches long, she rapidly scurried under a rock to hide. Non-venemous, I could have picked her up, but I didn't want to risk stressing her unduly. In retrospect, I could probably have handled her without too much difficulty. I have some experience with snakes, although in the UK we have no venomous species which makes dealing with them somewhat safer.

It's a good sign when one goes hiking for just a few hours and finds both predator and prey from one segment of the food web. Indeed, I probably saw four levels of the same chain, as the salamander could have eaten any of a dozen different insect species, and I suspect that more than one of the birds I saw that day would have happily eaten the snake. Although none of these species are especially rare, it was still a source of great satisfaction for me to have a chance to encounter them in their natural habitats.

Smoky Mountain Squirrel

Squirrel_on_tree_smokiessmallThis is a familiar fellow - the grey squirrel, or sciurus carolinensis. However, this particular sciurid was not spotted in a park in Manchester or any other city, but high up in the mountains on the Tennessee-Carolina border, in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This, then, is a wild squirrel, and not an urban adapted rodent of the kind we are more familiar.

I suspect, however, this little guy is quite familiar with humans since I spotted him within fifty metres of a car park on the Cades Cove loop - and tellingly, he (best guess at gender)  did not vanish when we met. Upon our mutual encounter he took the usual defensive step of climbing onto a tree and juxtiposing the trunk of the tree between him and me. This is a basic squirrel defence mechanism, easily observed  in greys. It is usually hard to spot if you are the interloper, as the squirrel disappears in the blind spot on the far side of the tree (and from there, can rapidly be tens of metres away in seconds, as they are some of nature's most agile beasts).

However, I remained quiet and still, and moved gently around the tree until I was able to get the photo seen here. He was breathing fast - fight or flight instinct doubtless leaving him uncertain of what to do. Facing down the tree, he was probably considering crossing the ground to the next trunk, had I proved a potential threat. Not moving does wonders to relax a squirrel in this situation, as like many small animals they key into movement as danger (although during mating season they rush after each other for the thrill of the chase). We remained locked in this position for perhaps a minute, before he decided that I wasn't a threat.

Squirrel1_small_1He retreated up the tree to the nearest crook in the branches, as shown in this picture, and continued to watch me, now confident that I wasn't a threat. Perhaps he was wondering if I had any food - since the most likely reason for a squirrel to hang around a noisy car parking area is to take advantage of any food left by picnicking human visitors. (Since he was a wild squirrel, I didn't feed him).

It was an interesting encounter - much closer than is usually possible with a wild squirrel, suggesting once again that he was somewhat accustomed to humans, although he had certainly not lost his caution in their presence. From his higher vantage point, he had no fear of me, but retained a certain charming curiosity.

Although not the only squirrel I saw this day, this was the most intimate of my encounters.

Matters Arising

Only just returned from a month in the US; went for GDC, but stayed for several weeks in Tennessee afterwards. Time for another statement of what might be coming up...

  • Fireball: as the push begins to complete the PC version for release on Manifesto, I expect there to be plenty of posts talking about of the last stages of development of this game. I'm itching to post one today, but I'd like to get a screenshot from the new build before I do.
  • Squirrels and wildlife:  I have pictures from the Smokies I want to blog. I think I'll do this today.
  • Language games: having just read what is commonly referred to as "the Brown Book" (Wittgenstein's notes directly prior to his writing Philosophical Investigations), I feel now is a good time to talk about Ludwig's concept of language games. I still have to decide whether to write 'language game' or 'language-game' (sprachspiel in the original German).
  • Feyerabend: loving this guy's work. Posts will doubtless follow.
  • DGD2 - Choices: I have an idea that we can find play distinctions in the conditions under which different players enjoy making a choice. I have some notes on this that need writing up.

And I expect to be getting back to Shadow of the Colossus and Metroid this week after a month of absence, so there might be posts on these too. As ever, we'll have to see what happens!

The Complexity of Ludus

Cellularcomplexity_2What is ludus? What is a game? Are these two questions related? Is ludus synonymous with rules? What is the relationship between rules and games, and must games expressly possess rules? Because of the flexibility of language, these questions might not possess absolute answers. In tackling ludus, we have no choice but to indulge in philosophical discussions, because ludus exists in the abstract realm of ideas, and cannot be measured or otherwise objectively analysed. How then are we to understand ludus?  

In 1958, the eclectic French intellectual Roger Caillois identified four patterns of play - Agon (competition), Alea (chance), Mimicry (simulation), and Ilinx (vertigo), about which I have written previously at some length. Caillois' model for play also includes an axis of distinction, between the anarchy of spontaneous play called paidia, and the more formal, rule-focused state he refers to as ludus. He describes ludus as follows:

A primary power of improvisation and joy, which I call paidia, is allied to the taste for gratuitous difficulty that i propose to call ludus, in order to encompass the various games to which, without exaggeration, a civilising quality can be attributed…

In general, the first manifestations of paidia have no name and could not have any, precisely because they are not part of any order, distinctive symbolism, or clearly differentiated life that would permit a vocabulary to consecrate their autonomy with a specific term. But as soon as conventions, techniques, and utensils emerge, the first games as such arise with them: e.g. leapfrog, hide and seek, kite-flying, teetotum, sliding, blindman's buff, and doll-play. At this point, the contradictory roads of agon, alea, mimicry and ilinx begin to bifurcate. At the same time, the pleasure experienced in solving a problem arbitrarily designed for this purpose also intervenes, so that reaching a solution has no other goal than personal satisfaction for its own sake. 

This condition, which is ludus proper, is also reflected in different kinds of games, except for those which wholly depend upon the cast of a die. It is complementary to and a refinement of paidia, which it disciplines and enriches. It provides an occasion for training and normally leads to the acquisition of a special skill, a particular mastery of the operation of one or another contraption or the discovery of a satisfactory solution to problems of a more conventional type.

At this point we must pause and clarify that in talking about ludus here we are talking specifically of Caillios’ ludus; the term can and is applied by other people, and therefore like all words has diverse meanings and definitions. Here we are talking solely about what Caillois meant when he said ludus (or what we suppose that he meant), and looking at what this means in the context of the modern games industry. 

A few key phrases are worth repeating, in order to understand what it was that Callois was speaking of:

  • Ludus implies “…a taste for gratuitous difficulty”
  • The early stages of ludus allow for “…the pleasure experienced in solving a problem arbitrarily designed… reaching a solution has no other goal than personal satisfaction for its own sake”
  • Ludus provides for “…the acquisition of a special skill, a particular mastery…”

KickballFirstly, let us consider the idea that ludus implies intentional difficulty, because this is clearly stated. Why should this be so? A simple example will serve to elucidate. When children kick around a ball, this is paidia to Caillois; it has no explicit rules, and its play is defined by the inherent properties of kicking a ball. This is principally the physics of gravity, friction, and air resistance and so forth, all of which are implicit – properties of the universe – and not explicit – properties assigned by human agency.

However, suppose that they add to their play a single vertical post – perhaps it is a broom handle stuck into the ground – and begin to play in order to see who can hit the broomstick with the ball. Here, the task has been made harder – for it is clearly easier to hit a ball than it is to hit a specific target with a ball. This is what I believe Callois refers to when he talks of ‘gratuitous difficulty’: the addition of rules which by their very existence increase the difficulty of the play. 

Of course, increasing difficulty can be fun. Following Csikszentmihalyi’s model of Flow, if the challenge is significantly less than capabilities, boredom results. Therefore, the addition of rules in this way (the application of ludus) can reduce boredom – it provides a sufficiently entertaining challenge. In adding such rules, however, especially in this early transition from paidia to ludus, it is important that the challenge remains attainable. If the goal were to kick the ball such that it would balance atop the broomstick, it would be beyond anyone’s realistic expectation to succeed, and frustration would naturally result.

In this way, then, we can see ludus as the tempering of paidia with restrictions such that a sufficient level of challenge is maintained. “Gratuitious difficulty” should not be interpreted as ‘challenges beyond reasonable chance of success’ but rather the imposition of sufficient difficulty as to render the activity rewarding. 

This ties in with Caillois’ comment about “the pleasure experienced in solving a problem arbitrarily designed”. This should not be taken to mean solely an intellectual problem (such as a crossword puzzle, or a chess game), but rather, a challenge of any kind, solved in the manner appropriate. The challenge of hitting the brookstick with a ball is a physical challenge requiring co-ordination of one’s feet, but it is still “a problem arbitrarily designed”.

This then is why ludus leads to “the acquisition of a special skill, a particular mastery”- because any challenge thus constructed requires specific skills to resolve: in the case of the ball and the broomstick, the skills of ball control which are also the skills used in the game of football (soccer to some) and its derivatives. Similarly, the skills acquired in learning to play a game of Chess are the skills of state space searching, which are also used in chequers and in some games of solitaire.  

Ludus can thus be seen as being a synonym for the explicit rules of a game, which include the rules by which play proceeds (or rather, the limits of what is allowed), the rules that define the goals of the game (or any scoring mechanism, which is merely a more complicated form of goal structure) and the rules which dictate the allowable properties of the components of play (the size and weight of a ball, or the dimensions of the playing field).

However, in the transition to the realm of videogames we are faced with a certain problem. We have thus far considered the qualities of play in paidia to be the implicit properties of the system involved – the physics of the ball, for instance – and only the human-applied rules which temper this basic behaviour qualify as part of the realm of ludus. 

In a videogame, there are strictly no implicit qualities: the entire system is comprised of programming code, and are thus quite literally explicit. Should we therefore consider all aspects of a videogame to be ludus? I do not believe this is consistent with how Caillois employed the term.

200pxn64_super_mario_64_shifting_sand_la_1Let us consider a specific example in the form of a generic platform game. The game consists of a world in which the player guides their avatar, primarily through the utility of a jump ability, and secondarily through the use of other abilities awarded through play. Their goal is the acquisition of certain tokens by one or more mechanisms. Enemies populate the world, and can interfere with the avatar’s activities. 

Which of these elements fit the definition of ludus?

The avatar’s movement in the world, on foot or by jumping, are inherent abilities possessed throughout the game, and seem analogous to the basic abilities one might possess in the real world. In playing a game of jumping, such as hopscotch, we can scarcely consider the jumping to be part of the explicit rules – rather, it is part of the implicit substructure of the universe in which the game is played. I contend that these basic avatar abilities are similarly part of the implicit substructure of the game world. That these abilities were defined by human agency during the development of the game is tangential (in discussing hopscotch, we did not need to turn to discussion of God or natural selection in order to appreciate that jumping was an implicit property of the players).

The secondary abilities gained are similarly considered. When a player interacts with a ball, they have new abilities as a consequence of the properties of the ball, but the addition of the ball would not normally be considered ludus. The only exception to this might be if the ball was acquired as a consequence of an imposed rule – for instance, the player must jump and balance upon a stool in order to earn the right to kick the ball. We are here in a strange middle ground – since we must consider whether the abilities gained are gained by rule or simply emerge as a consequence of the world.  

The goal, and the resultant play of collecting tokens, is the only element which we can unambiguously assign to rules, and hence to ludus. Here we see the embodiment of “gratuitous difficulty” for in the positions of the tokens the challenges have been laid out for the player to both find, and to solve.

The enemies are in a similarly ambiguous state as the secondary abilities. Should one consider these as implicit in the world, or explicit problems to overcome? In a real world setting, a game involving (say) catching butterflies would not consider the butterflies themselves to be a product of ludus, and the only ludic elements would therefore be any rules or restrictions applied (such as the rule that the person who collects the most butterflies wins). But on the other hand, if one were to construct a mechanical dog as a component in a game – perhaps one that snaps at passers by, and thus they are out – would we not consider this to be an added difficulty, and therefore a ludic element? 

What is apparent in this consideration of the specifics of a typical platform game is that the boundary between ludus as Caillois defines it and the game world is extremely subjective. We know (or believe we know) how the real world is comprised and behaves – at least to a degree sufficient to play within it. But in a game world, the behaviour is defined by the developers of the software. To consider the abstractions of the game world as ludic elements is almost to suggest that God (or something equivalent) contributed ludic elements to the universe. But these are not the purpose of these elements (such as gravity) but rather these inherent elements are co-opted to play because they exist.

I wish to suggest, therefore, that we can choose to determine a distinction between the substructure of a game world – the physical laws of the world – and the infrastructure of the game rules – the rules of the game (or games) played within this world. This is a distinction between the nature of the game world, and the nature of the ludus (rules) of the game. Sadly, we can never draw this line precisely because the boundary between the structure of the game world and the rules of the games played within it is inherently ambiguous. But as Wittgenstein has suggested: “Many words in this sense then don’t have a strict meaning. But this is not a defect. To think it is would be like saying that the light of my reading lamp is no real light at all because it has no sharp boundary.” 

CarwarsWhat does this mean for a highly abstracted game, such as a turn based strategy game? Here, the substructure of the game world is unlike the substructure of the real world. It consists, for instance, of a series of squares (or hexes et al) within which the components of the game are capable of moving about. Furthermore, are we to consider the properties of the individual units to be originating in ludus or in the game world? Since the individual units have natural properties, and these properties do not in themselves appear to comprise “problems arbitrarily designed” we might be tempted to exclude these from ludus. But in point of fact, the units in such a game can be seen as representing “problems arbitrarily designed”. After all, in a game of Chess, do the problems inherent in each move not originate in the properties of the pieces?

Games of this style, therefore – such as Chess, turn-based strategy games, non-real time cRPGs, game-like simulations and so forth – should be considered highly ludic games. Their world is defined in a fashion in which it is much harder to separate the game world from the game rules (the ludus) and therefore we can choose to consider these to be wholly ludic in their construction. 

What, then, makes the world of the platform game so different? I contend it is that the world resembles the world of our every day experience, and as such, we interpret those elements of the world which most strongly resemble the world of our experience as being part of the substructure of the game world. Why should we make such distinction? Because in paidia, we play freely because we subconsciously accept the properties of everyday life (such as movement, jumping, gravity), and even in a game world we can accept these things subconsciously if they resemble that with which we are most familiar.

We will never entirely eliminate the subjective element in distinguishing between the framework of the game world and the ludus of the game, but in tying the game world to the expectations for which we are biologically pre-programmed to accept, we can at least minimise the need to debate the boundary conditions. The behaviour of a car in a racing game can be considered substructural because it follows our expectation, while the conditions of the race itself are ludic; the behaviour of a unit in a strategy game is ludic because we must always learn explicitly what that behaviour might be, we can never imply it. Note here that the understanding of the behaviour of a car is a cultural artefact, and not a universal, which further underlines the subjectivity at the core of this distinction. 

Ludus, therefore, in Caillois’ sense, is a measure of artificial complexity, and therefore of imposed challenge and difficulty. The more ludic a game, the more complex its components (and the more learning is implied), and the more difficult the play of the game. The more ludic a game, the more and different skills that might be learned – and perhaps too, the more intrinsic to the game these skills become.

When one masters a strategy game, one learns nothing of what is required to play a first person shooter, and vice versa, although of course the ludic elements of the continuum of games are so interbred as to provide more crossover than might perhaps be expected. To give a more specific example, learning the power sequences for specific pokémon provides no benefit when you play a different cRPG, despite the fact that there is considerable crossover in the basic mechanics of any given cRPGs. The ludus that defines each pokémon is specific to a pokémon game.

The least ludic games are therefore those whose substructure is most akin to our conventional reality, and the most are those which are comprised of many layers of rules and strictures. We might therefore consider the platform game to be quite low on the ludic scale, with a first person shooter perhaps being similarly light in its ludic components, while a cRPG is relatively high upon the ludic scale, and a typical strategy game higher still. Real time strategy games lurk in a middle ground, being highly ludic, but less complex than the turn based strategy games which disappear into an esoteric realm of their own construction. 

Baseball_diamondAnd what of sporting games? These are highly ludic – but the barrier of learning their peculiar rules is usually mitigated by the fact that those that play the videogame versions are in general fully cognisant of these rules. Since we have been unable to eliminate the subjective effects of culture, one must be tempted to place these lower down the ludic scale than cRPGs and strategy games, since the rules of these games are practically a cultural inheritance. In this, as in any discussion of ludus, there is sufficient subjectivity as for debate to be both possible, and simultaneously quite unlikely to be productive.

Returning to Caillois, the following paragraph succinctly encapsulates the role of ludus: 

What I call ludus stands for the specific element in play the impact and cultural creativity of which seems most impressive. It does not connote a psychological attitude as precise as that of agon, alea, mimicry or ilinx, but in disciplining the paidia, its general contribution is to give the fundamental categories of play their purity and excellence.

Indeed, this notion of purity is intimately intertwined with ludus, and those games which express ludus most strongly (including state space games such as Chess, and strategy games of all kinds) are in many respects pure games, or pure ludic games (which need not be a tautology). They barely contain the capacity for paidia at all, because they have no game world substructure, and it is here – in the implicit components of a world – that paidia thrives. They are so far up the ludic scale as to be all but incapable of paidia.

Ludus, as described by Caillois, is a measure of the complexity of a game system, and the challenges and difficulties inherent to those systems. Ludus refers to rules, and also to those abstract properties of systems which function as rules in defining the extent and nature of the interactions possible within the game space. Ludus is abstract and intellectual, whereas paidia is informal and visceral. Ludus describes that which we generally consider a game, whereas paidia describes that which we generally consider play.  

Videogames can encapsulate both ends of this continuum. The ludic extreme has already been thoroughly explored, and arguably it is time for us to commit more certainly to exploring the other end of the scale, where paidia is dominant. But then again, the realm of ludus is so vast as to be effectively infinite, and perhaps we will never exhaust the possibilities inherent in the limitless realm of play defined by ludus.

The opening image is Cellular Complexity by the artist and scientist J. David Sweatt. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended, and I will gladly take the image down if asked. 

Concluding Preface

Well, it's about time for me to post my piece on ludus and complete my Caillois set. I'm not enormously satisfied with this final piece, as I had hoped to take the concept further. Instead, I find myself spending most of my time clarifying what Caillois meant by the term. This, perhaps, is a useful contribution of some kind, but not specifically to game design. Anyway, read it for yourself if you have the time.

I have tremendously enjoyed writing about Caillois' ideas, which I found utterly invigorating once I spent the time to truly get inside his model. I guess this material is just about long enough (with copious editing and improvement) to make a chapter in a future book. It's certainly too long for a magazine article. I don't doubt it will emerge in a more polished form (that ilinx piece in particular seems quite ropey compared to the later pieces) at some point in the future.

Anyway, just wanted to share some idle thoughts before I put this final piece up.

Flying back to the UK tomorrow morning; I have a Wittgenstein and a Feyerabend book to keep me engaged, and my GBA in case of emergency. And next week, the push begins to get Fireball ready for it's PC release on Manifesto. Should be an adventure.

Have fun!

On Branding

Branding_collage_1Branding… it’s the means by which giant corporations thrive, but also the means by which small companies survive. Is it the enemy? A potential ally? Or simply the embodiment of the way we apportion our loyalty in a capitalistic society? Should we be working to resist branding, or striving to make branding work for us? 

Last week, I bought a copy of Kings Blood, the fast paced card game of dynastic marriages originally published by Fujimi Shobo in  Japan. It is likely, given the appealing manga art style of the cards that I would have purchased this game anyway, but my buying decision was motivated to a very great degree by the US publisher: Steve Jackson Games. I trust SJG – I have loyalty to their brand that began with Car Wars but which has lasted more than twenty years on the back of an inventively offbeat catalogue of card and boardgames that has consistently favoured the hobbygamer over the mass market. (Kings Blood, incidentally, its lots of fun, and simple enough for non-hobbygamers to play; recommended for those looking for games with a short play time and relatively simple mechanics).

We are all influenced by brands – both positively and negatively. Brands are the entity to which we attach our emotional investments in the case of a brand that wins us over, and to which we allow our hatred and vehemence to accrue in the case of a brand that offends our sensibilities to any degree. The spectrum of branding can be seen as comprised of many different ‘families’ of brands: 

  • First mover brands: the first game to hit a successful new form of play generally forms a successful brand. It may also be the genre king (to coin Danc’s term) for its style of play, although careless management can lose it this position. Dungeons & Dragons, Magic: The Gathering and The Sims are all examples of genre kings that achieved their position by being the first mover.
  • Licensed brands (or brand franchises): those brands which build up the biggest reservoir of goodwill can be considered brand franchises (like Star Wars or the X-Men),      which can then be licensed to game companies (and indeed, clothing, food and detergent companies) to make what amounts to fancy merchandising in the worst case.
  • Implied brands: these are seldom talked about, but are those brands which exist outside of the statute of limitations for copyright. Most are mythological in nature. Consider, for instance the Three Kingdoms historical setting which Koei use for their Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Dynasty Warriors games. Other people could release games in the same setting (and sometimes do e.g. Dragon Throne: Battle for Red Cliffs), but the first mover on an implicit branding once again has an almost insurmountable advantage.
  • Niche brands: which accounts for just about everything else. This, in effect, describes all the brands which have neither the confluence of popularity of a first mover brand, nor the cross media benefits of a brand franchise.

Notice that Electronic Arts catalogue of games consist entirely of a vast swathe of licensed brands (all the major sporting brands they could buy, plus all the major film brands they can buy each year), a small number of implied brands (e.g. Medal of Honour which is a World War 2 FPS brand) and the odd first mover brand which in EA’s case is usually created by Wil Wright (e.g. The Sims). Niche brands it considers irrelevant, and discards whenever it acquires them e.g. Dungeon Keeper. 

The Hardcore gaming community (as a collective entity) often manages to achieve a degree of staggering hypocrisy in the context of brands, attacking those games which they perceive as empty brand attachments, yet continuing to purchase Star Wars branded product, or Sid Meier’s Civilization sequels, or the latest title in the anything-but-final Final Fantasy sequence. Any claim that it is the branding they oppose seems rather empty: rather, it is the specific brands they seem to take umbrage at.

A counter claim is that it is the attachment of a brand license to a poor game design that causes the offence. Let us briefly examine this claim with a specific point of reference, namely the game X-Men Legends. I apologize to anyone who thinks this is a well-designed game; there is room for subjectivity in all things, but to my sensibilities this is one of the worst game designs I have had the misfortune to struggle through.

I was reduced to slack jawed incredulity when I saw the reviews for this game. Metacritic gives it an overall average of 79 (Generally Favourable Reviews). The first ten of its 48 reviews give it 90% or higher. We must scroll through some 40 reviews before we reach review scores of around 60%, which is honestly what this game probably deserves.   

Lest I seem to be attacking this title unfairly, let me just share a short anecdote that will provide some perspective. I happened to meet one of the people who worked on this project at a convention that we were both speaking at. For obvious reasons, I will not name who this was, or which convention. I asked him, politely, if the project had had workflow problems (politely trying to probe for an explanation for the ultimate mess that resulted). I was somewhat surprised to be regaled with a sorry tale of woes that revealed that, yes indeed, this project had numerous problems from beginning to end. The person in question also revealed that he was amazed at the review scores the game garnered upon release. To this I smiled and said: “The power of the X-men brand.”

And indeed, this is the secret of this game’s success, and also, the reason why publishers are more interested in brand than in game design. Even with a terribly conceived, hideously unbalanced and atrociously constructed game design, X-Men Legends was able to pull in solid sales figures (sufficient for a sequel), and even able to pull in review scores which must surely be seen as disproportionate to the objective quality of the game play (if such a statement is indeed meaningful).

Brand trumps game design in commercial terms, because people will play – and even potentially enjoy – a badly designed game that meets their expectations in terms of branding. I played through this game from beginning to end because I have been an X-fan in the past, and I have an emotional attachment to these characters. And awful game design aside, the artists have wonderfully animated these familiar characters, which further lends attachment to what underneath the hood is very badly cloned from Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance. (A brief aside: they got lucky that the form they chose to copy was a form of Logistical play, as if I am correct, this is the most widely spread play skill set). 

It is small wonder, then, that publishers are more interested in branding and prior success than original concepts and products. A powerful brand can overcome almost all deficiencies in the open market. The audience at large (which can be taken to mean the mass market audience for games) is many times more likely to buy a game featuring a brand they recognise and love than a new game about which they know nothing at all.

I think this is something that new game designers struggle to come to terms with. They often have new and inventive ideas for game settings and backdrops – perhaps ones that they have previously enjoyed in their own tabletop role-playing games. I know this was the case for me when I came to videogame design. But the brutal truth is that we are all too easily blinded by the effects of branding. These settings may have great emotional connections for the game designer, but they mean nothing to the audience at large; they are not even niche brands (yet), but just potential brands, and a potential brand has no inherent commercial value.

Perhaps, if their game design is exceptional, they are lucky enough to catch the imagination of an audience, and if the stars are in alignment, their ideas will bloom into a new and popular brand. After all, even the X-Men were an unknown property once upon a time. But you would be hard pressed to find a videogame brand which shot to prominence without either a long sequence of proven products climbing the market ladder (Metal Gear, GTA, Final Fantasy) or a mighty marketing push and theft of existing popular forms (Halo in respect of the film Aliens; Splinter Cell in respect of Metal Gear). Most original game settings are forever doomed to market obscurity.

Perhaps indie publishing like Manifesto Games can change this by hitting direct to an audience more willing to explore the original, but even this has still to be proven. A Tale in the Desert and Puzzle Pirates suggest it may be possible, but I suspect if it is a viable new market route it may only succeed through the successful creation of an indie brand. I’m certainly hoping Manifesto can be that brand, and am currently backing them to the hilt. Of course, my sword is not particularly long, nor is it especially sharp, but I try to wield it with panache.

When a publisher buys a licensed brand for a game, what it’s really buying is an insurance policy that all but guarantees a minimum number of sales for a game. A good game design has no such guarantee associated with it and, if not backed by strong advertising, will vanish without a trace in the vast ocean of the games market. Strong game design can found a new brand (and indeed, create a new genre king), but usually only by building on the brand from game to game (GTA, Final Fantasy, Metal Gear) or by massive expenditure on marketing (Halo et al). Cases of new brands being created solely by the strength of their design are so rare as to lack an unambiguous example.

Anyone hoping that their original content will form a new brand better hope they are either offering an entirely new form of play (or at least an especially compelling take on existing play), or that they need only a narrow niche audience to survive. It can be done – Steve Jackson Games has hung in for a quarter of a century on a portfolio of niche brands - but it’s an exceptionally tough road. Are you sure it’s the road you want to travel?

A Game Design Dictionary

Johnsons_dictionaryWanted: Lexicographer
This is an appeal to the network effect of the internet to see if I can reach out and contact a lexicographer (or more than one). If you know someone who works in lexicography, please can you see if this is something they might be interested in - thank you.

Over at Lost Garden, Danc has a piece on the Game Innovation database. I heartily agree with him that we have a language problem in game design. We lack any common language in our field, and also lack the mechanisms to bring such entity into being. I also tend to agree that an academic approach is unlikely to succeed in building a common lexicon. However, I'm not convinced an open database of 'game innovations' (whatever that might transpire to include) will have the desired result of building a common lexicon.

Right now, even as we speak, people working in thousands of different developers are employing terms that apply to the game design process. These terms are already in use, but they are not catalogued or recorded in any shape or form right now. This is a 'hidden language' of game design - and because it is concealed, the effect of natural selection upon it is to create many 'local ecologies' of words. In effect, we are each marking out our separate 'language niches' and defending these, effectively working against the goal of building a common language of game design.

In order to build a common public lexicon of game design, a possible step would be to build a dictionary of all the game design terms currently in use. I do not know in any great detail the process that lexicographers use to formulate a dictionary, but I am assume that it works by having a group of people who make a value judgement based upon the evidence available about what to include and what to exclude, aided by some criteria-driven protocol established by tradition or developed over years of practice.

Perhaps cataloguing game design terms used in books, papers and articles on the subject would be a starting point - although many such instances contain words used solely by just the individual in question, and therefore have shaky claims to belonging in a public lexicon. For example, no-one uses the term 'game world abstraction' but me, I think; should it qualify just because I managed to get it into a book? I'm not sure this should be sufficient. Whereas the term 'play style' does seem to have begun to seep out into more wider usage, and perhaps should qualify. Similarly, 'market vectors', which I feel I might have helped spread to wider awareness, I believe originated with Wil Wright (although he may have borrowed it from elsewhere).

We therefore need a lexicographer (or a collection of lexicographers) to work on the problem of the game design lexicon, thus bringing the terms currently in use into public knowledge, so that natural selection can work upon the entire vocabulary and refine it into a common language. Presumably, such a person (or people) would also be able to publish the resulting 'Dictionary of Game Design', in the manner of many such specialist dictionaries (e.g. A Dictionary of Computing). I would be delighted to lend my support to such a project as a game design professional.

Perhaps such a dictionary would have too small an audience to justify publication, or would require an investment of work disproportionate to the expected returns. If this is the case, a (lexicographer) moderated wiki-style lexicon (wixicon?) might be the way forward. Perhaps this would be a sensible prior step in any case. Certainly, any such venture needs to be moderated by someone who knows the best practices for lexicography, to avoid being a sink hole for everyone's random terminology.

So, if you are a lexicographer and you fancy being the person to lead a project to produce a dictionary of game design (or you don't want to lead it, but would like to be involved), I encourage you to get in touch. May the network effect of the internet bring you safely to my virtual door!

In the Balance

BalanceHow are we to position ourselves in respect of change? How much should we strive to maintain the status quo, and to what extent should we struggle to push for the new? Change is inevitable, and yet there must be something working at balance in our societies, for the rate of change, whilst visible at the scale of a single lifetime, is nonetheless indolent in its expression. Why should this be so?

I first began thinking in terms of homeostatic models at a social level in the context of language. The meaning of words change over time - what has been termed language drift. But at a grass roots level, what one can observe are those people who fight to maintain the old forms (such as maintaining 'moot' as meaning 'debatable', not 'impossible to debate', and maintaining 'factoid' as 'an unverified or inaccurate piece of information', not 'a small fact), and people who adopt the new forms. If you fish around in your life, you may well find examples of both - at the very least, your English (or other language) teacher is likely to have been a force for maintaining traditional forms over neologisms.

I have taken to considering those who resist the rate of change as brakes, and those who work to bring a faster rate of change as accelerators. I have discussed this model at such length with one of my friends, that I no longer know with any certainty who coined it, but nonetheless, I find it a useful way of looking at changes in societies. In terms of homeostasis, a brake generates negative feedback, and an accelerator generates positive feedback; between the two, a balance of progress is maintained which (I believe) is slightly in favour of change, such that over time, societies do gradually change and evolve, but not at a rate of change so rapid as to be asymptotic - except when the pressures within a social system exceeds its limits, and then revolutions and other catastrophic reformations result.

One of the many things that this has helped me to come to terms with is the Catholic church. As a person who is pro-religion (and also pro-science), I have wanted for many years now to reach a comfortable space with all major religions, but Catholicism was difficult for me, because it's anti-birth control provisions are acting as an accelerator on the population explosion, and it's anti-gay, anti-female leanings are similarly out of step with my own beliefs. Indeed, the Catholic church is quite often seen as being a century behind the rest of the century - at the end of the twentieth century, their prevailing belief system (controlled and encapsulated in the current Catholic Pope) was rather similar to the prevailing social beliefs at the start of the twentieth century.

However, I have been able to reconcile with Catholicism by seeing it as a brake on the rate of social change. It is not desirable for change to occur too rapidly, and the twentieth century perhaps more than any other has been an engine of technical advancement (although whether this was a sudden step forward - like the discovery of how to work iron - or part of a continuous process is open to debate). The Catholic church, by acting as a brake on the rate of social change serves as a 'social anchor'. I can respect this. By 2100, we will perhaps have a Catholic Pope reflecting late twentieth century values - such as birth control and sexual equality. By granting the Catholic Pope of each era absolute capacity to determine the rules, it is actually more flexible than a religion that uses a religious text as its basis - it just happens to represent a very slow rate of change.

In a wholly different context, I have been very surprised with the vehemence with which my colleague, Ernest, has positioned himself against blogs - but then, perhaps I have been too blinded by the many benefits of a system that produces a global network of common materials and an information economy. I always endeavour to see the positive (because the alternative is too depressing!), and thus even the detritus at the base of the blogging world seems to me to be of potential value to sociologists and other researchers who could never have such a wealth of self-reports at any time previous. But in taking these roles, I am becoming the accelerator, and Ernest the brake. Blogs will endure, because they have found a successful niche and serve multiple functions to numerous to elucidate. But perhaps the rate of change has been too rapid, and we are in need of some brakes to provide balance.

We choose our battles - choose where we will act as a brake and where as an accelerator. I try to act as a brake on the rate of change of environment, on the supplanting of traditional game and art forms with global commercial forms, and on the abandoning of religious frameworks as a social bedrock; I try to act as an accelerator in the rate of change of social tolerance, the trend towards negative population growth, and in the focus on the game design process on player needs. These are the roles that I inevitably find myself in. Other people will find other roles.

Mike Moorcock's metaphor of the Cosmic Balance - which in his Eternal Champion cosmology mediates between the stifling orthodoxy of Law (representing civilization and justice, but also inflexibility, and stagnant sterility) and the unruly disorder of Chaos (representing entropy and turmoil, but also change and progress) is a modern metaphor for the homeostatic struggle. Highly politically motivated, Moorcock's Law also represents the best and worst of right-wing political ideology, while his Chaos represents the strengths and failings of left-wing political ideology, thus grounding this fantasy iconography in modern political thought. Almost all of his stories are set against the backdrop of this struggle projected at some scale or another, with the exception of more literary fiction such as the acclaimed Mother London or The Brothel in Rossenstrasse. His novels are narratives about the struggle to maintain balance. Indeed, Moorcock's most recent heroines and heroes have made it explicit that they must fight first for one side, then for the other - forever fighting to preserve the balance.

Joseph Campbell once wrote that the world remains largely the same over the centuries - a point which I have spent some time debating internally.  (I cannot find the quote, so please do not take my summary as wholly accurate). Largely, he was characterising a theme in religious mythology - that the essential conflicts of humanity and the world are eternal and unchanging. Human nature cannot be changed (on a time scale meaningful to an individual or a culture) and therefore it must be accepted. My problem has been that I tend to agree - there is, for instance, little difference between Rome two thousand years ago and the USA now, in terms of the abstracts and the human behaviour driving the situations, but I also feel I must choose things worth fighting for and join the fray. But this, perhaps, is also how it has always been - that we must find our bearings from where we find ourselves, and act to support and oppose what seems worthwhile from our tiny place in history.

What is perhaps important, therefore, is that those of us with the will and the capacity to fight the abstract battles choose them carefully. What is worth opposing? What is worth assisting? Where should we act as brakes, and where as accelerators? Perhaps also we should accept that those fighting against us are not our enemies, but our partners in a vast and continuous social homeostat that has mediated and guided the progression of our global societies for as long as we have had languages to act as the foundation for our beliefs.

The opening image is 'Balance' by Anders Sandberg. As ever, no copyright infringement is implied or intended, and I will take it down if asked.

DGD2: Measuring Play

How does one measure play? Are there instruments we can construct that detect different kinds of play? Nicole Lazzaro employed Ekman's instrument of emotional cues to build an observational model, but what other tools are available that we might use to build a working model of play, and of play styles?

It has been some time since I've posted on the journey towards the DGD2 audience model. To a considerable degree, this has been a result of being incredibly busy - working on Fireball, helping to set up a company in India, working on the Game Writing book and so forth. However, the other problem I'm facing is that I have set the bar rather too high for a next step.

I'm very keen to pursue the game tests as a means towards DGD2, but what I need to reach a new model in this way is a rather large collection of tests - and in truth, defining even one of these tests is a difficult challenge. I am therefore faced with the decision of either breaking down the task into smaller steps, or choosing an alternative course of action.

Science is the process of measuring. In order to do this, it uses instruments, which in some cases are broadly reliable devices - such as rulers, voltmeters and radio telescopes - and in some cases are subjectively agreed forms - such as biological taxonomies, social experiments and personality inventories. The value placed in these instruments is largely a product of the dominant scientific paradigms, and therefore of prevailing belief systems among scientists. Even apparently reliable instruments often depend upon more subjective instrumentation to proceed to conclusions - for example, see the telltale signs of cognitive dissonance in the cosmologist when you ask them what it would mean if the speed of light were not constant...

If DGD2 is to proceed to a next stage via game tests, then what I am facing is actually an instrumentation problem. I need to define instruments. And realistically, I cannot hope to be providing all this instrumentation in a single step, as each instrument is in effect a seperate experiment, and hence a seperate measurement. It may behoove me, therefore, to narrow my focus, and consider what instruments can be designed to measure play.

The hypothesis I am working on for DGD2 at the moment is something like this:

Different people enjoy different forms of play. Temperament Theory suggests that there is an applicable model of skills in four related clusters: Logistical, Tactical, Strategic and Diplomatic, expressed to different degrees by all people. These skill sets can be applied to play...

That, however, is the point that the paragraph runs out. What exactly is the hypothesis guiding DGD2? Always bearing in mind that my hope is not to prove the hypothesis correct - I'm perfectly happy to prove it wrong (we did with DGD!). The goal is to produce a new model based on experimental observation - measurement, if you will. The hypothesis just determines the direction we head out in, not what we will ultimately find. But this hypothesis is currently incomplete.

Having now identified that coming up with a suite of instruments for DGD2 research is too large a problem to be solved in a single step, it follows, therefore, that I should either choose one skill set and attempt to produce an instrument to "detect" it (or to detect enjoyment in people employing it), or I should choose some element of play, determine an instrument to "detect" it, and then produce a hypothesis as to the expected results in the context of the model I already have.

And this is roughly as far as I have managed to come. I need tools to measure play, and I believe it may be possible by constructing mini-games or micro-games (a la Warioware). But I still need a more solid framework before I can design these games, or find partners (academic or commercial) to realise the instrumentation.

Perhaps part of my problem is the attempt to produce these games in isolation, and in fact I would do better to choose existing games and to produce instruments that detect different play inside the same game (which could be done with observational metrics). Perhaps my problem is continuing to work with Temperament Theory, and I would do better to give up the model I have (despite it's apparent utility) and try another approach. However, since I find the subjective instruments of Temperament Theory to be useful, and they are validated to some degree by the capacity for other people using the same model to communicate meaningfully with me, it seems a shame to give up the map that I have, before having a means to build a new map.

Whatever the reason, I am currently stalled, and can find no obvious way to proceed. I continue to think about the problems at great length, but the brutal truth is I may be stuck like apocryphal Newton under the tree, waiting for a clue to hit me over the head.