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Vripples We do not know the social effects of games.

This should not come as a surprise, as we do not know the social effects of television or film; of theatre or music; of science or religion; of politics or business... Social effects, it transpires, are nebulous and intangible. Scientific research into such areas is somewhere between insurmountably difficult and utterly impossible, and although we can find studies, these suffer from all the natural problems inherent to the scientific process: we cannot know what stock to place in their results. As with the entire spectrum of the scientific endeavour, we filter its results through our belief systems and come to our own conclusions. It all comes down to beliefs in the end.

I believe there are social effects of games, and I believe that the majority of games currently made are massively influenced by previous commercially successful media such as TV and films. I believe the social effect of TV should perhaps form a considerably larger cause for concern than the social effects of games, especially in the light of the Cultivation Theory studies, which demonstrate that the reality we construe from watching TV becomes integrated into our personal models of reality. But I do not believe the idea of a greater cultural influence from TV excempts game developers from their duty to use their medium responsibly.

And I do not believe we currently use our medium responsibly. Recent Grand Theft Auto games are fun, juvenile entertainment for adults - but we all know they are being played by young teenagers and children. One assumes the same is true of a great many games currently in circulation, many of which are undoubtedly more explicitly violent than GTA's slapstick - they are being played by people much younger than is intended.  One may ask: is this the fault of the game makers or the parents? I would counter: does ascribing blame actually address our problem?

Games are having social effects, but we cannot know what these effects might be... in the absence of established knowledge, we must resort to our individual moral compasses to guide us. Why is it that only doctors take an oath to 'never do harm to anyone'? Do we erroneously assume theirs is the only profession that could cause harm? How different our world would be if we had agreed codes of ethics for scientists, CEOs and yes, even game developers.

We do not know the social effect of games. So we must exercise our own judgement in deciding which games to make.

The opening image is Christian Wharton's Ripples. As ever, no copyright infringement is implied and I will take the image down if asked.

Japanese Invasion

Life has been disrupted by an incursion of friendly Japanese women, and a good friend of mine also visiting from Japan. Blogging has been a palpable casualty...

The Cost of Inventories

Inventory We are finally seeing a movement towards relegating inventories to secondary status in mass market games, a move that I believe is helpful to increasing the appeal of games - case in point, games such as Halo and Mercenaries which allow the player only two weapons, or Rogue Trooper, which allows its single weapon multiple roles. While any game rooted in the traditions of role-playing games is likely to maintain an inventory, these are gradually adapting to their new role as a mechanism of interest chiefly to the (increasingly large) minority audience of game-literate players.

I am not against inventories - they make sense for games in which planning an expedition is part of the play (many but not all role-playing games), for games using plenitude of objects or clues for puzzles (adventure games), for any game in which logistical play centred around trade is key (such as space trading games a la Elite, or various other kinds of role-playing games) and for any game wishing to create tension by providing strict limitations (survival horror games, for instance). But I do not believe that inventories are necessarily a good idea for an audience with low game literacy, such as the mass market audience in general.

I increasingly believe that the single largest barrier to wider audience is steepness of learning curve, and that the largest single factor in this is dimensionality of control, that is, the complexity of the interface.

There are two particular costs to inventories which hurt mass market appeal:

1. They add to learning curve. The player must learn a control to access the inventory, then (usually) learn a custom set of controls to operate the inventory.
2. They often add to dimensionality of control e.g. by adding +1 dimension for scrolling left or right through the inventory. This also produces very clumsy play from time to time, as players fumble through their inventory for the right weapon or tool!
3. They undermine engagement by forcing the player to switch between direct play and inventory management.

Remember, I'm not against inventories, I just think they are not helpful for mass market appeal. Superior solutions when dealing with a widespread audience include:

1. Context Sensitive Inventories

Project_zero_2_rigell_003 We already see considerable use of context sensitive use of items - such that the Action button will use the correct item in the correct context. The only example I can think of on the fly is the use of items in Project Zero/Fatal Frame, whereby each situation requiring an item automatically uses the correct item (if anyone remembers other games where the items are always used in a context-sensitive form, please jog my memory!)

This can become complicated at the design level, because it is necessary to ensure that the game contains no overloaded contexts. Still, better to give a complex probem to the game designers, who thrive on complexity, than to the players, who may not!

We could even see context sensitive weapon use, if we wanted to: enemy out of range, auto-select sniper rifle; enemy at far range, auto-select assault rifle; enemy at mid-range, auto-select SMG; enemy at close range, auto-select shotgun; friendly targets present, auto-select pistol; enemy too close for guns, auto-select melee. (This should be viewed solely as a preliminary suggestion for such a scheme, not an ideal case).

If there is potential for Hardcore players to be frustrated by not having direct control, an alternative control configuration giving manual control can also be provided.

2. One or Two-Slot Inventory

Contra_arcade_game Remember the classic arcade games, where you had a simple choice of which weapon to take (as in Contra, or in Nemesis/Gradius with the choice between three way or laser)? These games didn't need inventory controls, because they only gave you 'one slot'.

More common these days, we see a two-slot weapon inventory as with Halo, Mercenaries and presumably others. (Other citations in this regard welcomed!) These systems are fantastically efficient! They require only one control, and its function is clear (switch weapon). A context sensitive option to switch weapons for others that are found gives the player a choice of kit. It is an excellent balance point, especially when backed up with additional static functions (such as a grenade button in Halo, or the knife in Resident Evil 4).

In a multiplayer co-op situation, the limited weapon allowance permits each player to develop their own role. (When everyone is multi-role, the most competent player does all the work, while everyone else is relegated to practically spectator status).

3. Toolkit Inventories

Fotomontyontherun The idea here is the player does not acquire new equipment in the game, but tackles the play of the game with a fixed set of tools which are always available throughout the game (or throughout a particular episode).

We haven't seen this much in use, but this was an idea we were toying with for an atmospheric adventure game called 8, with Tale of Tales (the Endless Forest people - and note, the new version of this is out with a considerably more expressive interface). It is also reminiscent of the "Freedom Kit" used in the classic Monty on the Run (which was an early context sensitive toolkit), although a flaw in this case was that the player was very likely to pick the wrong escape kit and therefore be unable to complete the game - still, it was a tougher world for players in the 8-bit era!

This is an alternative to an inventory, but it doesn't solve the issues of inventory selection, per se. Perhaps it must be coupled with one of the two previous solutions to make it viable for a wider audience.


We will always have some games with inventories, but we are at last entering a time when player-operated inventory systems are being recognised as clumsy in respect of a wider game audience. Ironically, the 'new' inventory replacements have their roots in much older (8-bit) games, but delivered in shiny new games they seem refreshingly new. I have high hopes that in the near future we may see these ideas taken even further. Who knows what new replacements for the classic inventory we might see in the next decade?

Sony's Copycat Policy

Ps3inandout_screen001 One of the many recurring stories coming out of E3 is how Sony have added motion sensors to the PS3 controller as an afterthought. I picked it up from Kim. Some people are saying that Sony are just trying to copy the Wii's controller concept. Nobody I've encountered has yet observed that you can do a lot more with motion sensors in a wand (which is a pointing device) than a joypad. However, a motion sensitive joypad will work as a control stick for an airplane, as being used in Warhawk. (And yes, the picture shown here is indeed the new PS3 controller; click on it if you want to see it close up).

Why would Sony blatantly rip off Nintendo in this regard? Because that's Sony policy. Nintendo are the undisputed innovators of the gaming interface device (although tip of the hat to Sony for the EyeToy and the tacky but entertaining Buzz controller). Sony have always stolen their best ideas, and this is no exception. One can imagine the discussions at Sony:

"Nintendo have some new motion sensor deely for their new console."
"Is it worth copying?"
"No idea, but Nintendo seem to be betting it will give them a new audience."
"Can we copy them?"
"Sure, we can put some motion sensors into our new controller."
"What would we do with it?"
"Doesn't matter. If we have it, we can copy any good ideas Nintendo has. Any anyway, our battle is with Microsoft now - and they don't have this. It's worth a few million dollars for motion sensing switches to get one up on them."

Why is Sony's interface device policy so dependent on copying Nintendo? A short history lesson (more information on the history of controllers here, if you're interested).

Back in 1991, Nintendo and Sony were going to be making a console together - the SNES CD. However, the contract between the two was, how shall we say, not acceptable to Nintendo (it allowed Sony 25% of the profits). So the two firms went separate ways.

At the end of 1994, Sony launched the PlayStation with a controller which was essentially a remodeled SNES controller, but with an extra pair of shoulder buttons.

In 1996, Nintendo launched the N64 with its innovative analogue stick controller. It was a bit of a sensation at the time.

1997, just one year later, Sony launched the PlayStation Dual Analogue controller. It's new feature? An analogue control stick, and an extra analogue control stick for... well, Sony didn't know, as early Dual Shock games show. But the development community gradually adopted it as a camera stick.

Also in 1997, Nintendo introduced the Rumble Pack accessory - the first haptic interface device (to coin a term I picked up from the Game Ontology Project). That happened in April.

In the winter of 1997, Sony replaced the Dual Analogue controller with the new Dual Shock controller. It's new feature? Vibration.

2002. Nintendo introduce the Wavebird, a wireless controller.

2005. In May, Sony announced that the controller for their new PS3 console would be wireless. (To be fair, everyone announced wireless controllers this year).

September 2005, Nintendo announced their new wand controller, an advanced pointing device with enormous potential as a new interface device.

Which brings us to May 2006, with Sony announcing that the new PS3 controller will now feature motion sensors.

I believe the pattern is self-evident.

I do not provide this retrospective to chide Sony, but rather to show that Sony recognises that Nintendo is the market leader in interface device innovation, they always have been, and Sony policy now seems to automatically presume that whatever Nintendo does with its interface devices are going to be worth copying at the earliest possible juncture.

I think it's sensible of Sony to steal this idea now, when they can add the concept to their new controller prior to manufacture, rather than risking having to issue a new controller within a year or so of PS3 release. But, and this point can't be overlooked, a joypad is not a pointing device. If the Wii happens to catch the zeitgeist and hit a new audience, Sony will have to introduce their own wand controller at some point in the future.

Wand_3 For the time being, however, the Wii still has the interface device spotlight, and the news that the wand has a speaker embedded so that, for instance, you will hear the sound of your bowstring being pulled from the wand, then hear the arrow strike its target from the TV, only adds to its charm. The wand sounds fun to a lot of people, and that's gaming gold dust.

Silly name or not, the Wii's wand (or wii-mote) is the next stop on the infinite path of interface device development. And Sony knows it.

Profile of an Average Player

What is the average game player like? We all have our ideas. Below, you can see a profile of an "Average Player", and some distinctions suggested between this "Average" player, a "Hardcore" player and a "Casual" player.

As I have mentioned before, I have the data from the DGD1 survey and am carefully working through it whenever I can find a spare moment. I'm expecting to get some interesting patterns out of this work some point soon, but in the meantime, I thought I'd share some of the more trivial high level data patterns.

What follows is a profile of the "Average" player in our sample. (Technically, it's the "Mean Player", but that implies something rather different!) As an obvious caveat, our sample consists of anyone interested in taking a play style survey - this is not a completely 'neutral' sample of all game players by any stretch of imagination. Still, it is still snapshot of a certain kind, and we can learn from it.


One of the conclusions of our original research was that play styles are not split into discrete Hardcore and Casual groups, but that there exists a instance of each play style for both the Hardcore and Casual clusters. This new data appears to broadly support this assertion.

Our system for identifying Hardcore and Casual players is self-identification. This means that those who fall in the 'Casual' cluster are at the very least sufficiently game literate to identify themselves as Casual palyers! I believe this Casual cluster represents Casual players on the border of Hardcore. There is also a third cluster of people who didn't know if they were Hardcore or Casual (we call these the "Unknowns"). I believe these may represent a Casual cluster closer to the "centre" of the Casual world.

The results are presented in terms of the percentage of people in each cluster (or in the entire sample) who answered yes to the sixteen questions in the DGD1 'test'.

  • 319 respondents in the sample.
  • 161 self-identified as Hardcore.
  • 120 self-identified as Casual.
  • 38 fell into the Unknown cluster.

All references to significant results refer to statistical significance at a threshold of 0.05 (i.e. 95% confidence). Any reference to the "Average Player' should be understood to mean 'the average result across the entire sample'.

The “Average Player” in our sample

1. “When I first start playing a game, I absolutely want and expect to beat the game.”

32% respond yes.

Hardcore: 34%
Casual: 34% 

2. “If I get stuck, I don't keep banging away at the puzzle. I go away, think about it, and come back with a new perspective.”

50% respond yes. 

Hardcore: 47%
Casual: 56% 

3. “I generally enjoy messing around with the game - it doesn't really matter if I'm not progressing.”

64% respond yes.

Hardcore: 65%
Casual: 64%

4. “The game I'm playing isn't as important as the people I'm playing with.”

34% respond yes. 

Hardcore: 34%
Casual: 38%

5. “When I'm working on a particular challenge, I'll try it over and over again until I beat it.”

55% respond yes. 

Hardcore: 60%
Casual: 57%

Photo Note: Although there was no statistically significant differences between the Hardcore and Casual clusters for this question, the Unknown cluster is a different matter. These players responded in the affirmative to this statement only 32% of the time - considerably lower. I believe this reflects the fact that the further from the Hardcore end of the spectrum one goes, the less patient with repetition the players become.

6. “I want to feel challenged, and I don't mind the game adjusting to my level, as long as it doesn't become too easy.”

72% respond yes.

Hardcore: 80%
Casual: 64%

Photo Note: The Casual cluster's response here is significantly different from the Hardcore cluster (but neither vary significantly from the complete sample). Clearly, becoming "too easy" is a concern for Hardcore players but not for those closer to the Casual end of the spectrum.

7. “When I face a challenge that feels too hard for me, I quickly lose interest.”

42% respond yes.

Hardcore: 33%
Casual: 53% 

Photo Note: The Casual cluster's response here is significantly different from the complete sample and the Hardcore cluster. The Casual cluster has the highest response rate for this question. This isn't wholly a suprise! I view this as a minor flaw in the survey that this question (and several others) skew slightly towards Casual.

8. “Once I start looking after a game character, I feel bad if I don't take good care of them.”

50% respond yes.

Hardcore: 48%
Casual: 49%

9. “I love it when I beat a really tough challenge - that makes everything worthwhile.”

71% respond yes. 

Hardcore: 78%
Casual: 67% 

Photo Note: Another difference between Hardcore and Casual clusters, with significantly lower rate of response from Casual players. This question is an informal test for fiero-seeking behaviour (i.e. the desire to achieve 'triumph over adversity'). Notice the number of people who respond yes! Clearly fiero is a significant driving force in the current audience for games. Also, it seems that fiero is less of a draw for Casual players.

10. “I like games with many different elements, so I can make diverse plans and strategies. I sometimes enjoy a game I lose if I feel I put up a good fight.”

74% respond yes (largest proportion in survey).

Hardcore: 74%
Casual: 73% 

Note: I think this question is rather weak, and the high rate of response coupled with the low incidence of deviation makes me wonder if this needs replacing with a better question.

11. “Sometimes I get swept up in the experience of the game and completely forget about the goals I've been given.”

63% respond yes.

Hardcore: 65%
Casual: 60%

12. “I'd much rather play with other people than play alone.”

36% respond yes. 

Hardcore: 38%
Casual: 43%

Photo Note: The similar response rates for Hardcore and Casual players are unremarkable, but the response from the Unknown sample is highly unexpected.  If you'd asked me to make a prediction, I'd have said this would get higher into the Casual end of the spectrum. But the Unknown sample responds yes only 8% of the time to this question. This is a curious result! The Unknown players would much rather play alone, suggesting that whoever the people are in this sample, they are (collectively) highly Introverted by Myers-Briggs.

13. “Most of the time I won't stop playing until I know I've seen and beaten everything.”

25% respond yes. 

Hardcore: 30%
Casual: 21% 

Photo Note: Although the difference between the Casual and Hardcore cluster responses is not quite statistically significant, if the Casual and Unknown samples are grouped together, the sample sizes become large enough to tip the balance. This combined group respond yes 20% of the time to this question with a sample size of 158.
Although at first sight this doesn’t seem much less than the 30% response rate in the Hardcore group, it is statistically significant. Unsurprisingly, the Hardcore group is therefore the most likely to respond in the affirmative to this question. We can conclude that seeing and doing everything in a game is a more important drive for Hardcore players.

14. “The way I play is more important than winning, because I want to master the games I play.”

40% respond yes.

Hardcore: 47%
Casual: 35% 

Photo Note: Once again, the Casual cluster produces a result significantly different from the Hardcore (while neither is significantly different from the average). Mastery, it seems is a more common theme among Hardcore players than Casual. Not a surprise, but interesting to see the statistics supporting this. 

15. “I usually have more than one game on the go... I don't need to finish one game to start another - a new experience is more rewarding than mastering something familiar.”

64% respond yes.

Hardcore: 68%
Casual: 59%

16. “I prefer a small game world with lots of characters to interact with, rather than a vast world to explore.”

23% respond yes (smallest proportion in the survey). 

Hardcore: 24%
Casual: 21%

The Hardcore Player (161 respondents)

It says something quite definite about the nature of our sample that there are no statistically significant differences between the "Hardcore" cluster and the complete sample, despite the fact only half of the sample self-identify as "Hardcore". On the one hand, this (weakly) supports our assertion about play styles being independent of Hardcore/Casual factors. On the other, it suggests our "Casual" cluster in this case is not greatly removed from the profile of a Hardcore player. 

The key conclusions based upon comparisons between the Hardcore and Casual clusters are that players in the Hardcore cluster are more likely to be concerned with games becoming "too easy", appear more  likely to be motivated by fiero (triumph over adversity), more interested in mastery and more concerned with doing and seeing everything a game has to offer.

The Casual Player (120 respondents)

The Casual player differs from both the Average Player and the Hardcore cluster in several significant ways, although the deviation in this particular sample is quite small. The only significant difference from the Average Player is a greater tendency to lose interest in the face of a tough challenge, whereas when comparing to the Hardcore cluster, we see less concern about the game becoming too easy, less focus on fiero (triumph over adversity), and less interest in mastery. 

The Unknown Player (38 respondants)

People in this sample did not know if they should be considered Hardcore or Casual… This probably implies a player who fits the conventional template of a Casual player, but is not familiar with the terminology. This is a small sample, consisting of only 38 respondants. For the most part, the Unknown cluster is close to the Casual cluster, but there are some interesting deviations (from both the Casual cluster and the "Average Player").

The peculiarities of this cluster are lower tolerance for repetition and greater desire to play alone. Perhaps this is an artefact of how the data was gatherered: Extroverted players are probably less likely to be interested in taking a Play Style survey. This suggests we may need to consider how we can gather data on more Extroverted players.

And still to come...

I will be grouping the results by people's favourite games in order to produce profiles of the players who enjoy certain games. There may not be enough data to process by individual titles (the largest single cluster for a particular game is for the Civlization games, at 26 respondents), and so I may be forced to cluster by game genre. Either way, it promises to be a new and intriguing perspective on the gaming audience!

Scratchware Auteurs

Patrick's "Scratchware Auteurs" roundtable discussion is in the latest issue of The Escapist. The talk is between Patrick, Jenova Chen (Cloud), Tom Long (indie newcomer), Greg Costikyan and Santiago Siri (Utopia) and myself. We had enormous fun that day; I hope the transcript is similarly entertaining.

Just as a clarifying point, Patrick makes it sounds as if our research was inspired by Nicole Lazarro. In fact, our original research was concluded before I even knew who Nicole was. But seeing her talk at GDC was an eye opener because her work slotted into ours rather neatly, so when it came to write 21st Century Game Design it became essential to show how our work connected with hers.

This is also probably the first mention of Fireball in a publication, unless anyone knows differently. I have the new build of the game right now, and everything is up and running (although rough around the edges). Expect a post in the next few days.

GTA Play Specification

Gta_san_andreas_1 The monstrous market success of the Grand Theft Auto franchise has been discussed at great length, but how do these games break down into verbs and nouns? The following is my play specification for GTA: San Andreas, reflecting an all too familiar focus of play. For more on play specifications, see here. Remember, this is a subjective notation; there are many possible representations for any game.

Grand Theft Auto San Andreas: Play Specification

    C.J. (avatar)
    Vehicles (cars, trucks, motorbikes, push-bikes, boats,
         planes, helicopters, trains,  jetpack)
    Pedestrians (in various classes)
    Items (i.e. pickups; weapons, armour)
    Regions (see below)
    Safe houses

    Drive (inc. pilot, fly, pedal)
    Fight (inc. shoot, assault, explode et al.)
    Move (inc. walk, run, swim, paraglide)
    Clamber (inc. jump, climb over)

    (Various mini-game verbs)
    (Dating verbs: kiss, give flowers, dance, eat/drink)


    Wanted Rating/C.J.

Main Verbs

The GTA games are greatly tied up with the notion of extensiveness: these games attempt to deliver as wide a variety of elements as possible within their framework. However, the core of the play (which can be identified as the central subsystems of the game) revolves around very familiar verbs. On the one hand we have vehicle control verbs which I group under Drive, and on the other hand we have the "run and gun" verbs Move, Clamber and Fight. The use of these verbs in games are pretty common, and unworthy of discussion - although Clamber is an interesting case: although included as a jump function, it is actually used far more often to vault over a wall. Because the game is not focussed on environmental negotiation (as in a platform game), Clamber is a fully automated verb. Bravo to the team for not being tempted to imbed challenge in this verb.

These key verbs are used in a highly extensive fashion. For instance, although I have grouped all machine control verbs under Drive, significantly different systems are in place for four-wheeled vehicles, motorbikes, push bikes (which have a Jump verb!), boats, planes and helicopters. This is the extensiveness of the game in action: the high level verbs as I have drawn them characterise areas of play which are supported by a dizzying diversity of nouns (Vehicles). It is no exageration to say that without this the game would collapse.

Similarly, the Move verb is well supported with its specific instantiations. One can not only walk and run, but paraglide and swim as well. The addition of the swim verb (grouped here under Move) is a critical step forward for the GTA franchise, as with it the last of the game's killzones is eliminated. Earlier GTA games were fatal in water - creating a certain frustration, and a barrier to free exploration. Although this didn't significantly hurt the appeal of the game, eliminating this problem did increase the maximum potential audience for San Andreas.

There is little to say on the Fight verbs. There is nothing remarkable going on here, but the decision to provide an automatic targeting mechanism (thus making fighting easier) is thoroughly admirable: a game focussing on Shoot (like any FPS) may choose to make aiming a key verb, but there is simply no need here. GTA is a "mayhem simulator"; there is no need to add challenge in the individual verbs.

Additional Verbs

Navigate is an implied verb, but quite important to the play of the game. It is perfectly possible to play the game without  map reading and learning the layout of the various regions, but the enjoyment of the game (and the ease of play) is radically enhanced by doing so. In fact, I suspect that the people who most enjoy the games get a significant satisfaction from this verb. The map is of an exceptionally high standard, and can be used to plot routes just as one would do in the real world. For those unable or unwilling to do this, the waypoint markers can be used as 'beacons' to guide the player to the target, but this is a largely ineffective way to tackle the game. Still, the majority of players have little or no intention of completing the game.

Horn/Bell/Siren... this is pure mimicry (although sirens do clear the road). Well worth including, however.

is a familiar enough game verb, but in this game it allows an unprecedented volume of character customisations (sufficient that in adjectives I felt C.J's Appearance warranted seperate consideration from his Attributes i.e. his game stats). Another aspect of Purchase is the capacity to buy property (Safe houses) which greatly adds to the players emotional investment in the world. However, this element is underdeveloped and both could and should be taken further in the future.

Not only can the player Purchase clothing, tattoos, haircuts and accessories to customise their appearance, but they can use two verbs to alter the avatar's appearance in a unique and entertaining fashion: Eat and Exercise allow the player to change the weight of the avatar - allowing C.J. to become truly rotund at the corpulent end of the scale. Pure mimicry for the most part, this is nonetheless a tremendously satisfying addition to the game world. Exercise also serves to build muscle strength, which does have some game effect. Together, these elements (along with certain other attributes which I will not look into in any detail) are highly relevant to the Girlfriends, who each respond to a different combination of attributes.

Imbedded Mini-games

One will notice that many verbs which are present in the game - such as rob, photograph, extinguish, rescue etc. not to mention the verbs associated with the various poor quality arcade games, pool simulations and gambling simulations, are not fully enumerated. This is because to my mind they occur only in the context of specific imbedded mini-games. I believe these are best understood as additional 'chocolate box' activities offered to the player for their amusement. I suspect that, for the most part, many were not worth the development resources invested in them, but given that the core gameplay had been extended to the maximum degree of extensiveness concievable at this time, perhaps their addition was the only place the team had left to go.

Perhaps the most interesting of the imbedded mini-games is the dating game, which is completely new for San Andreas and owes a certain something to the Japanese dating simulator. Although many players doubtless did not connect with this element and ignored it, it is far and away the most unique of the mini-game activities included. It comes with a variety of verbs just for the purposes of the mimicry of the experience: including kiss, give flowers, dance (also possible as a seperate mini-game) and eat/drink (in cut scene form only).

Although the individual mini-games are unremarkable, the sheer volume included serve to provide a certain aleatory entertainment - as the player occasionally stumbles upon something new and interesting, simply because of the sheer volume of random things thrown in for good measure.

Similarly, there are the collection mini-games of oysters and horseshoes, which are also aleatory to some extent, and the tags, photographs and car exporting, which provide alea and mimicry. However, since there is for the most part no reward if the player doesn't complete the collection, these elements fall rather flat. Only the most driven completest player will see them through.


Perhaps the signature element of all the GTA games is the Wanted system. It's function is so widely known, I won't recap it here. So significant to the play of the game is this system that I felt it should be represented by a verb - but it is not a verb the player can enact, but rather a verb that the game applies to the player. This is what I mean by Enforce. The game sends an infinite supply of police officers, SWAT teams, fighter jets et al (commensurate to the current Wanted rating) in order to fight, detain and annoy the player. This in turn produces a certain kind of play which is intimately tied up in the nature of the game. It need not be expressed as a verb, of course, but I feel it this is a case of the game employing a verb against the player: one can imagine a two player version of this aspect of the game in which one player is the quarry (C.J.) and the other deploys the enforcement. In this game, perhaps, we would need different verbs to express this play, but as a 'black box' system owned by the game system, Enforce seems a sufficient representation.

The World

In deciding how to express the world in terms of nouns, I find that considering the world to consist of a series of tesselating Regions is the most satisfying. Each region contains:

  • A police station, which is a point at which the avatar is placed after an arrest
  • A hospital, which is a point at which the avatar is placed after 'death'
  • One or more safe houses, where the player can access their wardrobe and save.

In effect, each region is a complete game world in itself - the extensiveness of the game world as a whole results from placing so many of these regions together as a coherent whole. I suspect that there are some sixteen to twenty regions in all.


The core verbs of GTA: San Andreas are not that interesting in themselves. After all, we have seen no end of driving games, and there is certainly no shortage of run and gun games either. However, the lavish extensiveness of their representation in this game is worthy of merit - not only has (almost) every concievable aspect of the verbs been expressed in the game world, but the tuning of these systems is for the most part very smooth indeed. I have not found a more enjoyable motorcycle system in any other game to date, and indeed rarely touched the cars at all when playing myself. This game polish is a side effect of the sheer size of the budget upon which the game was built, but that does not mean that the team should not be praised for the time invested in not only implementing the subsystems, but getting them to be smoothly polished.

The playground world of the GTA games has been copied by several other games - but to my knowledge has not been improved upon in any significant manner. Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction is a competently rendered alternative to GTA with more focus on Fight and less on Drive, but it suffers from being essentially more of the same. (It also features twin stick controls which was sheer foolishness; part of the success of GTA comes from its low dimensionality of control). Recent Driver games have been quite badly designed. True Crime lacks the extensiveness that is so critical to the feel of the GTA worlds. The Godfather is a competent clone of GTA III, but is otherwise unremarkable. It's all pretty much reiteration. The Simpsons Hit and Run at least substitutes Jump for Fight.

What will be interesting to see is new playground worlds with new verbs - not shuffled versions of the same approach. I am sceptical of the publishers stumping up the cash to invest in such experimental projects - and of developers ability to deliver them - but I am in no doubt that they will emerge, in time. It will be interesting to see what verbs they employ.

Foggy Monday

Well, it must have been a good weekend because I feel a little less than vigorous this morning. :)  A barbeque, three blocks of halloumi, sixty bottles of beer, several bottles of  vodka, some good friends, some Texas hold 'em, and some drunken debate; up until dawn. Perfect.

Some random thoughts.

  • I finished GTA: San Andreas on Friday. I wasn't expecting to get there, but I guess going back every now and then had to eventually get me there. Enjoyed this so much more than Vice City (which annoyed me intensely), but mostly because of the entertaining virtual world. Anyone interested in an analysis of this as a play specification? Or a full analysis like the one for the katamari games several months ago?
  • Russell T. Davies' Dr. Who consistently excels. What a rejuvination of a show (although whether one can enjoy it without having first experienced Dr. Who as a child is questionable). Writing for children is difficult enough; making the stories relevant and entertaining for adults at the same time is miraculous.

    This week, Stephen Moffat's "The Girl in the Fireplace". The show has always leveraged recent BBC costume dramas to make historical pieces (like the classic "Masque of Mandragora"), and this one was truly exceptional. Bravo.

    Next week, Tom MacRae attempts the practically insurmountable task of following in the footsteps of Terry Nation's "Genesis of the Daleks", one of the finest Dr. Who serials ever made, with a story based on the origins of the cybermen but shot in the style of a gritty urban political drama such as Alan Bleasdale's G.B.H. I for one am salivating in anxious anticipation.
  • In case it is not apparent, I have finally fallen in love with Shadow of the Colossus, despite it's obsession with fiero. Hopefully, it will not also make me learn to hate it, as Ico did. Yorda was a compelling companion, but Agro is exceptional (despite some finicky context senstive mechanisms), and the colossi are even more beautiful than the castle in Ico. I remain sceptical that anything in the game's ending will change its play specification, however! :)
  • Still haven't completed (NES) Metroid, although the number of missiles clogging up the Mother Brain's cortex grows with every week. Soon...
  • Still playing with my structural specification ideas... a preliminary post will emerge at some point.

Alright, I have other things to attend to...  Take care!

The Role of Extras

Duncan Monroe of Ghosts in the Game on the subject of extras (i.e. inconsequential NPCs) in games, following from an earlier post.

Extras should be able to respond appropriately to attempts to communicate. They should also exist unto themselves and add atmosphere to the scene appropriate to the world, or effect desired.

Basically, by having extras in your game you are trying to generate a particular effect. You are trying to convince the player that they are in a town, or city, or on a bus, or somewhere other than in front of their computer. The extras generate background information that is not plot critical, but necessary for the suspension of disbelief and the desired atmosphere. When encountered in non-interactive media these encounters are limited because they are not plot critical. Any non-critical information is typically removed for reasons of pacing and focus. Putting all sorts of other conversations into a movie would make the movie hours longer, and detract from the story trying to be told. With games, the same thing happens, but because the focus is more on player encountered story, rather than directorially controlled story, the pacing tends to be slower and amble more.

In daily life, there are hundreds of extras, none of which we typically talk to unless it is directed. But we could, and we would get a response. Typically this response would be a strange look, and them hurrying on their way. Occasionally, you might be able to get information, or elicit comments from strangers. More often, the reward for random communication is too low to encourage us to continue or repeat the process. Not so in games. Because the cast of extras often numbers in the dozens, instead of the hundreds, it is much easier to talk to everyone. Extras also tend to mill about purposeless. People don’t. People have things to do and places to be and getting in their way is usually a bad thing to do.

I would argue that the use of extras, and their level of responsiveness, should be dictated by the story being told. In most cases, I agree with you: extras should not talk. But they shouldn’t talk because the player shouldn’t be trying to initiate contact, not because they can’t due to lack of scripting or inability. Extras should be impossible to corner, and when they are should quickly extricate themselves (and even leave), keeping to the context of the game. Extras should be in inaccessible areas. Or extras should just be omitted whenever possible. If you can create a scene with the same level of atmosphere and feeling, without using extras, then you should. Because using extras poorly will break the believability of the world.

Alternatively, conversation with companions should be in place to detract from the desire to communicate with random extras. When you travel around with a group of people chances are you talk with them, possibly on a constant basis. Why would you strike up conversations with strangers when you have people you know, and have relationships with, close at hand to converse with? It is not the extra’s fault that the world and social interactions of the game lack definition. I would posit that talking with extras is often a player’s attempt to elicit natural communication from an incomplete world.

Spring Festivals

Living in the UK, most of the spring festivals don't feel much like spring. The Chinese new year (also known as the Spring Festival) occurs in our freezing cold winter, Hindu spring festivals such as Holi, Navroze and Bihu are over by April (when it is still generally a bit cold and wet), and the Christian festival of spring (Easter), while slightly later, is still not late enough to guarantee good weather.

I like to celebrate spring with a barbeque, and that requires warmth and sunlight. Today is the spring festival I choose to celebrate; in parts of the Americas it is El Cinco de Mayo (a victory memorial, not a spring festival per se), to some Discordians today is Havvoth Nar (a spring new year celebration), in Thailand it is Coronation Day, to Wiccans and other pagans, today is Beltane (although often celebrated on May 1st). Whatever the reason, today is a great day to celebrate the spring in a temperate climate country that borders on the arctic!

Happy spring everyone!