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Farewell to Reason

Farewell_to_reason This is an ad hoc summation of Paul Feyerabend’s book Farewell to Reason, which presents a vigorous challenge to scientific nationalism. Feyerabend was Professor of Philosophy at the University of California at Berkeley and Professor of the Philosophy of Science at the Federal Institute of Technology at Zurich. He died in 1994.

Paul Feyerabend may have been the last major philosopher of the twentieth century, although his critics would rather he had never taken up his pen. Feyerabend (whose name is pronounced ‘fire-a-bend’) is that rarest of things, a relativist with claws. While other relativists have found themselves retreated to an untenable position akin to solipsism (the belief that the only thing one can know with any certainty is one’s own perceptions), Feyerabend runs roughshod over the landscape of philosophy with the sure footed confidence of someone not only blessed with great intellect, but an exceptional grasp of history and a grand compassion that is infectiously democratic. 

Farewell to Reason is a collection of disparate essays which deal with cultural diversity and cultural change. Their goal is to demonstrate that diversity is beneficial while uniformity reduces both our available resources and the joy of living. Although it succeeds in this goal, it will not convert Feyerabend’s opponents (whose philosophical position, frankly, may be so entrenched as to perhaps be intractable) and his rigorously presented arguments are not for the intellectually timid, nor for the philosophical amateur. This material is hard to read – but all the more rewarding because of it.

(In order to get the most from Feyerabend, an awareness of the philosophies of Wittgenstien and Kuhn is an inessential but useful starting point. Anyone approaching Feyerabend from a position of total philosophical ignorance is likely to be completely out of their depth, or at the very least, unlikely to fully comprehend Feyerabend’s concepts). 

Feyerabend contends that there exist powerful traditions which oppose diversity. The proponents of these points of view concede that people may arrange their lives in a variety of fashions but they insist that there must be limits to variety, and further claim that these limits are constituted either by moral laws which regulate human action, or by physical laws which define our position in nature. In particular, Feyerabend criticises two ideas which have historically been used to justify and make respectable the expansion of Western forms of life (or the ‘brave new monotony’, as one essay terms it) – namely the idea of Reason and the idea of Objectivity.

When someone says that a procedure or point of view is objective (or ‘objectively true’, which is synonymous) they are asserting that it is valid irrespective of human expectations, ideas, attitudes and wishes. It is an underlying claim which many modern scientists and intellectuals assert about their work. This issue is explored in more depth than I can possibly reproduce here, with historical examples spanning from the ancient Greeks through Galileo to more modern examples such as Popper. (Fans of Popper beware: Feyerabend worked with Popper at one point in his life and appears to have developed a pathological hatred of the father of what is termed ‘naïve falsificationism’). 

In the context of Reason (with a capital R), or Rationality (the words are functionally equivalent, if not synonymous), Feyerabend presents fundamental problems even in the introduction to the book, as this short extract demonstrates:

Hardnosed empiricists regard it as irrational to retain view plainly in conflict with experiment while hardnosed theoreticians smile at the irrationality of those who revise basic principles at every flicker of the evidence. 

He asserts that the notions of ‘this is rational’ or ‘this is irrational’ are ambiguous, and never clearly explained, and demonstrates why attempting to enforce such views would be counter productive. By way of context he suggests:

The assumption that there exist universally valid and binding standards of knowledge and action is a special case of a belief whose influence extends far beyond the domain of intellectual debate. This belief… may be formulated by saying that there exists a right way of living and that the world must be made to accept it. 

He proceeds to give examples of religious intolerance and war propelled by such a belief. Indeed, he is far less generous to religion than I would be, but does demonstrate that it is extreme fundamentalism (of the kind expressed above) which causes the problem – and it matters not if this is built on a religious, political or scientific framework. I have long been seeking someone who could present this viewpoint in an erudite fashion, as I have been struggling alone with it for many years. Feyerabend continues:

We may surmise that the idea is a leftover from times when important matters were run from a single centre, a king or a jealous god, supporting and giving authority to a single world view. And we may further surmise that Reason and Rationality are powers of a similar kind and are surrounded by the same aura as were gods, kings, tyrants and their merciless laws. The content has evaporated; the aura remains and makes the powers survive.

In many respects, the perspective that Feyerabend sets down in this book has much in common with the views espoused by Robert Anton Wilson in ‘The New Inquisition’. While Feyerabend lacks

Wilson’s entertainingly constructed prose, he makes up for it with a rigorous argumentation built on a much more solid understanding of philosophy and history (and an absence of entertaining drug-addled rambling). Fans of

Wilson’s work, however, and especially those with the patience for highly academic material, would gain much from considering Feyerabend.

Rather than discuss all of the essays in Farewell to Reason, I shall focus my attention primarily on the first and the final chapter. This is not to say the other material is not fascinating (or, in the case of ‘Aristotle’s Theory of Mathematics’ completely beyond my comprehension!), but these two chapters have the most general remit, and therefore are perhaps easier to summarize.

Notes on Relativism 

The first chapter discusses a particular attempt to make sense of the phenomena of cultural variety, namely relativism. In this essay, Feyerabend begins by presenting a particular thesis (which I will include here), then gradually strengthens the idea presented through a series of arguments. I cannot summarise this adequately, so one must accept that what I present here gives you some idea of how this chapter proceeds but does not give you the necessary information to fully comprehend (or meaningfully oppose) this viewpoint. For this, you must read Feyerabend’s work yourself.

The opening thesis concerns practical relativism, which overlaps somewhat with opportunism: 

R1: individuals, groups, entire civilizations may profit from studying alien cultures, institutions, ideas, no matter how strong the traditions that support their own views (no matter how strong the arguments that support these views). For example, Roman Catholics may profit from studying Buddhism, physicians may profit from a study of the Nei Ching or from an encounter with African witch doctors, psychologists may profit from a study of the ways in which novelists and actors build a character, scientists in general may profit from a study of unscientific methods and points of view and Western civilization as a whole can learn a lot from the beliefs, habits, institutions of ‘primitive’ people. 

(Note that this does not make a recommendation, nor suggest a requirement. It merely suggests that such a study may have effects which could be regarded as beneficial).

Feyerabend observes that there is a spectrum of response to this thesis:

  • The thesis is rejected, which happens when a tightly knit world view is regarded as the only measure of truth and excellence, as happens with certain religious, political or scientific beliefs.
  • The thesis is rejected, but only in certain areas, as occurs in pluralistic cultures with separate components (religion, politics, art, science etc.) that are each guided by a well defined and exclusive paradigm.
  • An exchange of ideas and attitudes between different domains (cultures) is encouraged, but is subjected to the laws that rule the domain (culture) entered.
  • An acceptance that even our most basic assumptions, our most solid beliefs, and our most conclusive arguments can be changed, improved or defused, or shown to be irrelevant by a comparison with what at first looks like undiluted madness.

He then discusses in great length the relationship between modern science and this thesis, in a section that defies easy summation. 

Later, in considering R1 in the political context of democracy – which subjects important matters to public debate and is inherently pluralistic, encouraging the development of a variety of traditions – Feyerabend suggests that R1 suggests that each tradition may contribute to the welfare of individuals and to society as a whole. He therefore presents a new thesis:

R2: societies dedicated to freedom and democracy should be structured in a way that gives all traditions equal opportunities, i.e. equal access to federal funds, educational institutions, basic decisions. Science is to be treated as one tradition among many, not as a standard for judging what is and what is not, what can and what cannot be accepted. 

(Feyerabend is quick to point out that he does not favour the export of ‘freedom’ into regions that are doing well without it and whose inhabitants show no desire to change their ways. Rather, R2 is restricted to societies based upon ‘freedom and democracy’ in order to avoid facile generalisations).

This is rapidly strengthened into: 

R3: Democratic societies should give all traditions equal rights and not only equal opportunities. 

The discussion builds over a number of subsequent theses; these intermediate propositions are used to suggest the following hypothesis:

R10: for every statement (theory, point of view) that is believed to be true with good reasons there may exist arguments showing that either its opposite, or a weaker alternative, is true. 

And its stronger variant:

R11: For every statement, theory, point of view believed (to be true) with good reasons there exist arguments showing a conflicting alternative to be at least as good, or even better. 

Feyerabend concludes the chapter with the obvious criticisms of the relativistic viewpoints expressed, in a manner that once again is highly resistant to summation. An extract is perhaps required for demonstrative purposes:

‘If two parties disagree’, says Popper, ‘this may mean that one is wrong, or the other, or both. It does not mean, as the relativist will have it, that both may be equally right.’

This comment reveals in a nutshell the weakness of all intellectual attacks on relativism. ‘If two parties disagree’ – this means the opponents have established contact and understand each other. Now assume that the opponents come from different cultures. Whose means of communication will they use and how will understanding be reached? … Popper… seems to assume that there exists, basically, a single medium of discourse, that the medium is ‘rational’ in his sense (for example, it obeys simple logical laws), that is consists mainly of talk (gestures, facial expression plays no role), and that everybody has access to it… 


Illusionrabbitduck_1 Why should it not be possible to say conflicting things about ‘the same situation’ and yet be right? A picture that can be seen in two different ways (Wittgenstein’s duck-rabbit is an example) can be described in two different ways – and both parties will be right. It is a matter of research and not of philosophical fiat to decide whether the world we inhabit resembles a duck-rabbit picture. 

In concluding this essay, Feyerabend is keen to point out that he is not opposed to science:

Nor am I asserting that we can do without the sciences. We cannot. Having participated in, or permitted, the construction of an environment in which scientific laws come to the fore, both materially, in technological products, and spiritually, in the ideas that are allowed to guide major decisions, we, scientists as well as the common citizens of Western civilization, are subjected to their rule. But social conditions change and science changes with them. 

This essay opens Farewell to Reason with a resounding clatter of cymbals, presenting and arguing for an understanding of relativism with a thoroughness and philosophical precision which is admirable. My précis here captures only a fragment of the piece, and even then only the tone is conveyed, not the underlying arguments. For this, one must read ‘Notes on Relativism’ oneself.

One of the most striking aspects of this piece is the way it places science and religion on equal footing by considering both to be ‘traditions’. This approach had not occurred to me before, but provides a useful tool for examining belief systems from markedly different backgrounds. Viewed from Feyerabend’s vantage point, the last few hundred years of the history of science seem rather like Orwell’s Animal Farm: the forces of Reason manage to unseat the tyrannical despotism of religious traditions, only to take upon the aggressive fundamentalism of that which they opposed (but from a different set of prior beliefs – replacing theism with positivism i.e. the idea that the only authentic knowledge is scientific knowledge), and eventually emerging themselves as fanatical dictators, imposing onto others what can and cannot be believed. One might be inclined to suggest the problem was not with the religion or science that provided the motivation, but in the fascism that resulted.

As someone already sympathetic to relativism, the most surprising part of this chapter for me was how it made me re-evaluate democracy. For the first time in many years, I began to consider how democratic values might be worth rescuing, instead of being trapped in a place where the only political philosophy that seemed appealing was ‘enlightened anarchy’ (a state achievable only by luck). It is a call to arms for everyone open to new ideas, diversity of belief, and variety in approach, to participate in the development of our own societies. 


Farewell to Reason

The final chapter appears to have been written to clarify points Feyerabend raised in his book Against Method, and as such has a strangely uneven quality. However, it makes a good closing statement for this book, as well as a potential introduction to Feyerabend’s earlier work. 

One of Feyerabend’s themes is that there is no common structure to the sciences; individuals may assert that there is, but an analysis of the history of science shows how impressively ad hoc the development of science has been. This is not exploited as a criticism of science, per se, but rather identified as a strength: it argues against placing restrictions and limits on the spirit of open inquiry that underlies science:

My main thesis on [the structure of science] is: the events and results that constitute the sciences have no common structure: there are no elements that occur in every scientific investigation but are missing elsewhere (the objection that without such elements the word ‘science’ has no meaning assumes a theory of meaning that has been criticized, with excellent arguments, by Ockham, Berkeley and Wittgenstein)…

A theory of science that devises standards and structural elements of all scientific activities and authorizes them by reference to some rationality-theory may impress outsiders – but it is much too crude an instrument for the people on the spot, that is, for scientists facing some concrete research problem. The most we can do for them from afar is to enumerate rules of thumb, give historical examples, present case studies containing diverging procedures, demonstrate the inherent complexity of research and so prepare them for the morass they are about to enter. 

Another key theme is that science should be understood as one tradition among many, which is to say, Feyerabend questions the authority of the sciences:

I assert that there exist no ‘objective’ reasons for preferring science and Western rationalism to other traditions. Indeed it is difficult to imagine what such reasons might be. Are they reasons that would convince a person, or the members of a culture, no matter what their customs, their beliefs or their social situation? Then what we know about cultures shows us that there are no ‘objective’ reasons in that sense. Are they reasons which convince a person who has been properly prepared? Then all cultures have ‘objective’ reasons in their favour. Are they reasons which do not depend on ‘subjective’ elements such as commitment or personal preference? Then ‘objective’ reasons simply do not exist (the choice of objectivity as a measure is itself a personal and/or group choice – or else people simply accept it without much thought). 

He patiently attacks numerous common arguments extended to assert the innate superiority of science:

[Some intellectuals] distinguish between basic science and its application: if any destroying was done, then this was the work of the appliers, not of the good and innocent theoreticians. But the theoreticians are not that innocent. They are recommending analysis over and above understanding, and this even in domains dealing with human beings; they extol the ‘rationality’ and ‘objectivity’ of science without realising that a procedure whose main aim is to get rid of all human elements is bound to lead to inhuman actions. Or they distinguish between the good which science can do ‘in principle’ and the bad things it actually does. That can hardly give us comfort. All religions are good ‘in principle’ – but unfortunately this abstract Good has only rarely prevented their practitioners from behaving like bastards. 

He is particularly horrified by Popper’s suggestion that:

…the benefits of civilization may occasionally have to be imposed, on unwilling victims, by ‘a form of imperialism.’ 

The inevitable consequences of this statement are hopefully clear, and I will leave the political ramifications in respect of foreign policy as mere implications.

The spirit of relativism infuses the chapter: 

This is a general feature of all ideological debates: arguments in favour of a certain world view depend on assumptions which are accepted in some cultures, rejected in others, but which because of the ignorance of their defenders are thought to have universal validity. 

Feyerabend summarises his position in two statements:

(A) the way in which scientific problems are attacked and solved depends on the circumstances in which they arise, the (formal, experimental, ideological) means available at the time and the wishes of those dealing with them. There are no lasting boundary conditions of scientific research.

(B) the way in which problems of society and the interactions of cultures are attacked and solved also depends on the circumstances in which they arise, the means available at the time and the wishes of those dealing with them. There are no lasting boundary conditions of human action. 

Thus he criticises the view:

(C) that science and humanity must conform to conditions that can be determined independently of personal wishes and cultural circumstances.

And also the assumption: 

(D) that it is possible to solve problems from afar, without participating in the activities of the people concerned. 

(Opponents of the IMF, and of cultural imperialism of any kinds, will especially appreciate this point).

Finally, Feyerabend pointedly distinguishes between abstract traditions and historical traditions: 

Historical traditions cannot be understood from afar. Their assumptions, their possibilities, the (often unconscious) wishes of their bearers can be found only by immersion, i.e. one must live the life one wants to change. Neither (C) nor (D) apply to historical traditions… my main objections against intellectual solutions of social problems is that they start from a narrow cultural background, ascribe universal validity to it and use power to impose it on others. Is it surprising that I want to have nothing to do with such ratiofascistic dreams? Helping people does not mean kicking them around until they end up in someone else’s paradise, helping people means trying to introduce change as a friend, as a person, that is, who can identify with their wisdom as well as with their follies and who is sufficiently mature to let the latter prevail: an abstract discussion of the lives of people I do not know and with whose situation I am not familiar is not only a waste of time, it is also inhumane and impertinent. 


I say that Auschwitz is an extreme manifestation of an attitude that still thrives in our midst. It shows itself in the treatment of minorities in industrial democracies; in education… which most of the time consists in turning wonderful young people into colourless and self-righteous copies of their teachers… it shows itself in the killing of nature and of ‘primitive’ cultures with never a thought spent on those thus deprived of meaning for their lives; in the colossal conceit of our intellectuals, their belief that they know precisely what humanity needs and their relentless efforts to recreate people in their own, sorry image… in the lack of feeling of many so-called searchers for truth who systematically torture animals, study their discomfort and receive prizes for their cruelty.

As far as I am concerned there exists no difference whatsoever between the henchmen of Auschwitz and these ‘benefactors of mankind’ – life is misused for special purposes in both cases. The problem is the growing disregard for spiritual values and their replacement by a crude but ‘scientific’ materialism, occasionally even called humanism: man (i.e. humans as trained by their experts) can solve all problems – they do not need any trust in and any assistance from other agencies. How can I take a person seriously who bemoans distant crimes but praises the criminals in his own neighbourhood? And how can I decide a case from afar seeing that reality is richer than even the most wonderful imagination.



It is apparent, I suspect, that Feyerabend’s work is both polemic and completely against conventional assumptions many intellectuals take for granted. Indeed, the worth of his work lies precisely in his willingness to take such a hard stance against pervasive ideologies that are seldom identified and rarely opposed openly.

If there is a flaw in Feyerabend’s approach it is not with his philosophy, per se, but in its application. Is it possible for the transformation of science and society to proceed at a ‘grass roots’ level, from the everyday citizen? It is possible, but doubtful. We have handed over tremendous political and academic influence to intellectuals (who, for instance, can affect political decisions without themselves being elected as representatives), and they will not give up their power lightly. Opposing this state of affairs by attacking the philosophies which are used to prop up the status quo will likely fail because people with strong belief systems are rarely convinced by contrary argument. 

What perhaps is needed are people to come to the imaginary negotiating tables with the intent of building bridges. This is what I attempt in my life. It is a thankless task – opponents of religion insist that those with religious belief systems cannot be reasoned with, while opponents of science insist that those with materialist belief systems cannot be reasoned with. I dispute both propositions, although I cannot deny it seems harder to reason with the latter (whose faith is often more absolute) than the former (for whom doubt is a more common experience). Indeed, in my own philosophical investigations, I have thus far been attacked only by the latter, and never by the former, but I do not claim from this trivial sample that blame is attributable to one party and not the other.

Feyerabend draws a line in the sand, and stockpiles enough philosophical ammunition to arm potential revolutionaries willing to tackle the difficult problem of engaging an ‘enemy’ who does not appear to recognise their own culpability, and who seem determined to enforce their solutions on other people against their will. I would prefer to find ways to avoid the conflict entirely, but to do so may require inestimable patience in the face of people with intractably absolute belief systems. I suspect I lack Feyerabend’s pugnacious confidence, but I am certainly grateful to have access to his body of work.

I welcome discussion, but please remember this is a summation of a book: if you wish to fully understand, usefully critique or meaningfully oppose Feyerabend’s views, you should read the book first and not assume my synopsis is anything other than a brief introduction to his work. Or to put it another way: Don’t shoot the messenger! My best wishes to you all!

Wild Games

Wel_season Have you ever looked up at a bird soaring in the sky and wondered what it was like to live your life so far about the ground? Or watched a rabbit disappearing at breakneck speed in the woods and imagined yourself running and jumping with such surety and swiftness? Or, as I have often done, watched the squirrels chase each other through the trees, effortlessly negotiating a complex web of branches with consummate skill and grace? 

Some game designers make the games they want to play… I have not yet afforded myself such a luxury, although this is not to say that I wouldn’t or haven’t enjoyed playing the games I have made thus far. The games I want to make require development resources I don’t currently have available, and perhaps also require me to further prove my credentials (or at least, my economic value) as a game designer. These games I want to make are the wild games, and they are about playing with animals.


Existing Animal Games 

It has been a very sorry history for games about animals, with perhaps the notable exception of the better tamagotchi-style games such as Nintendogs.

I was excited about A Dog’s Life, until I discovered it was a generic platform game with a cartoon dog as the protagonist. What a wasted opportunity, at least from my own perspective. I was hoping for a play experience based around being a dog, instead I got to play a pre-existing game format with a character who happened to be a dog. Perhaps the only unique feature was the scent view, which I had done four years previous in Discworld Noir (although I’m not suggesting they copied me; I think it’s clear that they didn’t). I’m sure some people enjoyed this game but it wasn’t what I was looking for. 

Ecco4 Even more disappointing was Ecco the Dolphin: Defender of the Future on the Dreamcast, however. Here was the most beautifully animated dolphin tragically wed to an old school highly fatal linear puzzle chain, along with troubling 3D controls, narrowing the audience even further. It is small wonder we have not seen another game in this franchise. Ecco broke my heart, and not just because the development team had decided to give him the cetacean equivalent of asthma (a dolphin can hold its breath for twelve minutes, more than ten times Ecco’s lung capacity). It looked so beautiful, but the play experience wasn’t about being a dolphin.

Other games have similar disappointed. Turok Evolution is hardly a paragon of good game design, but it annoyed me to include a pteranodon flight section in which the pterosaur can and will crash into walls. I doubt that pterosaurs were much less capable than birds, and I have never seen a bird crash into a wall in thirty years of birdwatching. I was delighted to find that the seagulls in The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker were not similarly crippled in their flight capabilities. 

I want to make games about being and playing with animals. These will be my wild games.


About the Wild Games

All the wild games have certain common elements, which I shall introduce here: 

  • Each wild game is about being a particular animal.
  • The abilities and behaviours of the animals will be presented in a manner that feels real to the player (it does not have to be perfectly factual in basis, provided the illusion of reality is provided to the player, although I intend to aim for realism for the most part)
  • There will be no use of language, except perhaps a narrator for tutorial purposes.
  • The player will have a choice between playing in Utopia, in which there are no predators (the toyplay version), and playing Survival, in which the player must face predators appropriate to the animal they are playing (the gameplay version).
  • The main activities available to the player are feeding, playing and mating, all presented in a manner appropriate to the animal in question. For social animals, playing may involve expressing dominance and submission, and thus determining the social structure of the family unit.
  • Each wild game will also come with an environment editor, to allow people to create their own play spaces.

It is also inherent in the concept that the barrier to play in terms of the interface and so forth must be as minimal as possible. At the moment, I am planning to make everything work off a single move control, and (where possible) a single action button – although if the technology is there for a wholly voice activated interface, this would also be very tempting. The editors will similarly be designed to be quick to learn and easy to use.


Play with Rabbits 

Rabbits In which you become and play a rabbit. (You can also take control of other rabbits in your region).

Although the last of my current wild game concepts to be conceived, the rabbit wild game (currently nicknamed Play with Rabbits) is likely to be the first one implemented, because its developmental resources are the least. I chiefly require an updated version of my psychological/field-model AI system PsiScape, and a lot of rabbit animations. 

In Utopia, the player will seek and court a mate by use of the “rabbit dance” (pursuing and circling a mate), thus breeding new rabbits to add to their family. Games of dominance and submission will establish the male and female rabbit hierarchies (which are separate in rabbit ‘culture’). When there are many rabbits, it may be necessary for males to compete with other rabbits to breed. A good warren is needed for birthing.

In Survival, the player must also struggle against attacks from foxes and owls. The only ‘weapons’ available are the capacity to signal a warning to other rabbits by thumping feet, and of course, the ability to flee – initiating a high speed chase. Much of this chase will operate in a context-sensitive fashion; the player must judge where to run, not fine manage the jumping and dodging. (A real rabbit never hits a tree when it is fleeing from a predator). 

I have not yet designed the warren mechanics, but it will also be possible for the player to dig and maintain a warren.

Play with Rabbits promises to be very different from what we normally think about sims; we have become inured to simulations being dryly abstract, turn-based affairs, run from menus. This will be a simulation game played in real time, its focus securely placed on mimicry.


Play with Birds 

Aplomado_falcon_in_flight In which you become and play a bird.

This was the first of the wild games to be conceived, as it was originally going to be a verb game (emerging from a different conception of the verb ‘fly’ than we typically see in games). It became apparent that to do a good job with this concept required more resources than the verb game projects will have available. 

I have not yet decided with any confidence which birds will be used as the basis for this game. The hardest part of the design is the flight mechanics, which must reflect how actual birds negotiate environments, but this appears to be a manageable design problem on paper, and an appropriate force model can be used to ensure that the birds will not collide with incidental objects.

The other problem is that 3D controls are a barrier for many players, so this element must be carefully abstracted in the controls. This game may require two buttons – an ascend and a descend button (using a quantised vertical dimension so each press corresponds to a significant gain or loss of height), with all other actions context sensitive. By moving the third dimension onto buttons, it means the general nature of play will be reduced to two dimensional, making it easier (in principle!) for more players to play. 

The actual details of play will depend upon which bird species are chosen, but one can anticipate that it will include seeking food (a much more game-like activity for birds), mating behaviours, nest building and chick feeding. Predators in Survival mode will depend upon the birds chosen, but will doubtlessly include a bird of prey and at least one egg-thief (a snake or lizard).

I expect to include a songbird, at least one kind of social bird (possible the feral rock dove AKA pigeons) and at least one bird of prey (probably a falcon rather than a hawk).


Play with Squirrels 

Squirrel In which I achieve nirvana.

This is another old game concept, dating back to the verb games, but once again it was too difficult to achieve in that context. The game focuses around climb as its central verb, but this simplifies what the world of squirrels is like. It is difficult to express in words, but in essence squirrels live in a fractal world of arboreal branches, which they negotiate at incredible speed and with confidence. 

Negotiating trees at squirrel speed will be too difficult for many players, so the game will necessarily have to slow the play down from “squirrel standard time”. One possibility currently being considered is to include a very sensitive throttle mechanism for controlling the rate of movement, allowing the player to find the fastest speed they are comfortable with.

A decision has to be made at some point as to whether or not to swing the camera around with the squirrel’s perspective (which may be overly vertiginous, but would add ilinx to the play) or to use a fixed perspective camera such that down is always down (which may simplify the control schemes). It is possible we could offer both in the same game. 

Squirrels will automatically begin to scramble up trees when they reach them, and move out along branches they encounter. If they rush along a branch and there is another tree within jumping distance, they will automatically complete the jump. The skill of control will therefore not be of the success and failure kind we are used to in games, but rather about reading the environment.

Mating for squirrels is all about chasing – the males chase the females around the branches – and this will be one of the core elements of the play of the game. If the game engine gets the balance right, this experience should be thoroughly exhilarating. Finding food (and burying food) will also be important: when the squirrel has eaten recently, nuts and so forth that can be buried will be carried to be hidden in appropriate spots. This will be important in winter, as buried food will have to be dug up to eat through the lean months (a keen sense of smell allows squirrels to find buried nuts; this effect will be presented in a subtle visual manner).

Both urban and rural environments may be provided. In the case of urban environments, there should be some fun in finding ways to negotiate the environment. Squirrels love to use the tops of walls to get rapidly from one place to another, and are tenacious when they can smell food – even mastering the most complex of obstacle courses set up by wickedly amused humans. 

In Survival, hawks, foxes, cats and dogs will pose the main threat to the player’s cadre of squirrels. Cats and dogs rarely catch a squirrel, but the squirrel still has to be careful around these animals, both of which will chase anything that flees from them.

This is the most challenging of the wild game designs, requiring considerable work if it is to be delivered in a form suitable for a wide audience to play. Fortunately, I have the rest of my life to solve the necessary problems.


Commercial Prospects for Wild Games 

The most valuable television shows for export are nature documentaries, because they are enjoyed by people of almost all cultures – dramas and comedies, conversely, are very culturally dependent and do not export well. I anticipate that wild games made with the same care as a nature documentary will also have a wide appeal – especially if the control issues can be comfortably minimised. It is likely that they will not interest many of the current games hobbyists, but I am hopeful that those interested in new and different play experiences will come along for the ride. I believe these games have tremendous commercial potential if implemented skilfully.

What if someone beats me to it? No matter. I want the wild games to be made, and if someone else does it and does it well, I will be delighted to play their game! But I am sceptical that anyone else can do as good a job of these games as I can. I’ve spent many years observing wildlife of all kinds, and thinking about how to adapt animals to games. I might even be tempted to wax lyrical and say it is my destiny to make these games, but in saying this I mean nothing more than I am strongly motivated to see them come to pass. 

It will be several years before I can begin making the wild games. I hope by presenting this introduction now I can find a few people who might be interested in playing them.

Non-verbal Communication

Hand Game designers don't spend much time thinking about how to implement communication mechanisms in games, but perhaps they should. Non-verbal communication is particularly interesting: it doesn't need localising, it's readily understandable by (most) people and it supports fully mimicry.

The use of the whistle in Shadow of the Colossus is a great example. Whistle for your horse, or to attract the attention of a colossus - it adds greatly to the feel of the play of this game that one can make a noise.

Similarly, the horn in Mercenaries is a nice touch. Beep your horn to get people to board your vehicle (just like in real life!), or when you are disguised, beep your horn to let allies know that it's you. Simple, logical, and supporting mimicry. Easily the best part of the design of this game.

The ocarina in The Legendof Zelda: The Ocarina of Time is also interesting, here using music to communicate. This is perhaps under used, but the moment when one reveals oneself to Epona on the basis of a particular tune is truly inspired.

I look forward to a game with a 'wave' button, in which the flailing of a hand becomes an element of play.

Anyone have any other examples of non-verbal communication in games they'd care to share?

Astrological Alea

Hermes Astrology is the whipping boy of modern intellectuals. For some reason, those with a bias towards rationalism feel the need to vociferously attack astrology from time to time. Let us pre-suppose for the purposes of this post that astrology has no predictive value and that its forecasts and models are in effect random. Is this sufficient cause to attack astrology?

I contend that it is not. Why should people not be free to play a 'game of fate'? This is, after all, what is meant by alea. Most people read horoscopes for entertainment and amusement; if a particular prediction leads to someone taking action, it is likely because they are already considering taking action - the horoscope is a spur to action, not an order to be taken.

Furthermore, why should it be inherently superior, as some rationalists contend, to favour making life decisions on the basis of theory (which is frequently wrong and we have no way of knowing in advance when this is so) instead of on the basis of chance (which is also frequently wrong, and equally unpredictable)? People should be free to play their lives however they wish.

Evans-Pritchard, in respect of the culture of the Zande, says "I may remark that I found this [i.e. consulting oracles for day-to-day decisions] as satisfactory a way of running my home and affairs as any other I know of." One can also consider the influence of the I Ching in China; the skill in its use is in interpretation: the random element can be seen as an aid to inducing original thought.

(As an aside, Christians may wish to oppose divination on the basis of Old Testament 'laws', but such reasoning is questionable. For instance, Leviticus 19:19 clearly rules against garments made from two types of thread, a 'law' which is rarely enforced by anyone outside of Amish communities. I suggest Christians should understand that parts of the Old Testament record the cultural laws of early Judaic society, and not instructions from God intended for modern Christians to follow. Indeed, Jesus' ministry clearly lays down the 'new convenant': "love one another, as I have loved you" Enforcing this 'law' must surely please God more than enforcing archaic social restrictions that were probably originally intended to prevent the dilution of the authority of the priesthood).

I have previously noted that those who use astrology share a common language which allows them to communicate ideas that otherwise could not be exchanged. Here, I suggest that astrology is also both a reasonable entertainment, and a potential source of 'life noise' by which one may prevent oneself from falling into a rut by occasionally considering courses of action that are suggested at random.

I do not personally use astrology in my life, but I can see no sensible reason to oppose it. We should be free to live as we choose, and choose how we live.

Profile of Game Genre Fans

What distinguishes the fans of one genre from another? Although the data from our current DGD1 survey is rough around the edges, a little statistical analysis can show us something about the key differences at work. 

This report goes through each of the questions of the DGD1 survey in turn, stating the result as averaged across the entire survey and then any genre cluster that deviates from this result (at a statistical significance of 0.05 or better i.e. 95% confidence).

One can draw genre lines in a wide variety of different ways; the genre schema we used here is the one discussed in 21st Century Game Design. Since all we are interested in is interesting anomalies, I encourage anyone reading this to accept that all genre definitions are effectively arbitrary, and hence one system is as good as another. The numbers listed in brackets are indices: top level clusters are expressed as multiple of 100 e.g. 100, 200, 300; mid level clusters as multiple of 10 e.g. 120, 210, 330; low level clusters end in non-zero digits e.g. 114, 223, 319. I have included these as they explain which clusters are included in which higher level clusters.

The clustering is imperfect; some people may be counted more than once in the top level clusters because each participant listed three favourite games and if these games fall into the same top level cluster the data may be counted for each game. However, the results should not be unduly swayed by this effect. Also, we are assuming that favourite games reflect genre preferences. Anyone who does not accept this assumption should consider these results as play preferences in relation to favourite games, and not as genre preferences.

Also note that any cluster which comprised less than 5% of the total number of respondents were ignored as too small a sample, and that the participants of this survey are not guaranteed to be a perfect cross section of gameplayers.

All that said, let's take a look at the results.


Profile of Videogame Genre Fans 

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

32.29% of 319 respond yes. 

Higher results from:

  • Action Games (100) - 41.4% of 263
  • Shooters (110) - 45.5% of 123
  • First Person Shooters (114) - 46.2% of 106

Comments: it seems that the desire to beat a game is more important to FPS players than other players. In terms of the DGD1, this suggests that FPS games relate directly to the Conqueror archetype, perhaps. Note that the Shooters cluster here is so dominated by FPS games that we should draw no conclusion from its appearance. 


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.”

50.47% of 319 respond yes. 

No genre cluster deviates from this pattern.

Comments:  the lack of any deviation suggests the overall result is a commentary on game players in general. Since this question effectively distinguishes between the Judging and Percieiving traits in Myers-Briggs typology, I would suggest that players are equally divided between these preferences (which can be understood crudely as a distinction between an obsessive and a laid back attitude to playing games). I am quite suprised that no genre deviates from this pattern, actually, but it may be that genres which deviate did not recieve sufficient instances to hit the 5% threshold.


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

63.95% of 319 respond yes. 

Lower results from:

  • Platforms Games (120) - 49.2% of 61
  • Japanese-Style RPG (223) - 42.3% of 26

Higher results from: 

  • Adventure (210) - 75.9% of 87
  • Real-Time Strategy (330) - 78.8% of 52
  • Racing (140) - 80.5% of 41
  • City-Based Driving Game (147) - 86.4% of 22
  • Life Sim (440) - 93.8% of 16

 Comments: the implication here is that players who love Platform Games and Japanese-style RPGs have a stronger desire for progress than other players. In the case of Japanese-style RPGs, this is logical - these are very progress oriented, usually built along a progress spine. Platform games are a more suprising appearance in many respects.

The higher results are interesting. Players of adventure games don't feel the need to progress? Why might this be the case? Real-time strategy players could easily be enjoying the play of the battles, and racing games are notoriously experiential (few players attempt to complete them). By 'city-based driving game', read 'GTA'. We were already aware that many players who enjoy these games use them as playgrounds and do not follow the spinal progress. And lastly, players who love life sims (Animal Crossing, The Sims) show an almost universal lack of desire for progress! Although this does not look surprising, it does suggest that these games do not need to spend much of their resources providing complex progress structures.

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

33.86% of 319 respond yes.

Lower results from: 

  • Platform Games (120) - 18.0% of 61

Comments: players who like platform games appear to be more introverted (or less affiliative, which is not the same thing) than players in general, by quite a margin. I have always thought of platform games as having a wider appeal, but this result makes me wonder. I guess we won't be seeing any successful massively multiplayer platform games. :) 


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

55.17% of 319 respond yes. 

Higher results from:

  • Massively Multiplayer RPGs (228) - 66.7% of 111

Comments: perhaps this says more about how MMORPGs are structured than anything else. Once the player is emotionally invested, they feel they must beat the challenges they face. Alternatively, it might be that MMORPG players are more obsessive than other players.

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.” 

71.79% of 319 respond yes.

Lower results from: 

  • City-Based Driving Game (147) - 50.0% of 22

Comments: fans of GTA don't feel as great a need to be challenged? Once again it seems that fans of GTA love the playground world more than the spine missions. 


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

42.32% of 319 respond yes. 

Lower results from:

  • Massively Multiplayer RPGs (228) - 30.6% of 111

Comments: I suppose if MMORPG players did quickly lose interest in their games they would not have many subscribers! As with question 5, it seems that 'obsessive' tendancies might be slightly more prevalant among MMORPG fans.


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

50.16% of 319 respond yes. 

Lower results from:

  • Racing (140) - 29.3% of 41
  • City-Based Driving Game (147) - 27.3% of 22

Higher results from: 

  • Strategy (300) - 61.8% of 110
  • Western-Style RPG - 68.0% of 50
  • Platform Adventures (125) - 73.9% of 23

Comments: One can hardly be surprised that fans of GTA are not interested in looking after game characters! If ever there was a game based upon abusing NPCs... Racing games notoriously have no characters, so its appearance as a lower result might not be suprising; it does suggest that fans of Racing games are less affiliative than other players, which might be expected.

In terms of the higher results, the presence of Strategy games may reflect what might be called "the X-com effect": players of that particular game reported becoming very attached to their characters. Perhaps certain Strategy games should endeavour to have more personalities and fewer faceless units? That we see the same result in Western-style cRPGs is equally not suprising. Whereas Japanese cRPGs tend to provide static characters, Western-style cRPGs place more of a premium on the player's freedom to create and/or select the characters they want in their party.

What does suprise me here is the high result for Platform Adventures. Is it possible that the success of the Tomb Raider games has more to do with the appeal of Lara Croft than with the gameplay? This does not seem to be true for the Prince of Persia series (which were the most popular games in this cluster), as a by-title analysis shows a low result on this question for fans of these games. The fact that Psychonauts was included in this cluster might have skewed the results, as a by-title analysis reveals a statistically significant result on this question for Psychonauts at 100%, but since this was only 4 respondants, this is inconclusive at best, especially since several other clusters also show a 100% response rate (albiet for small clusters: Castlevania - 2 respondants, and Tomb Raider - 2 respondants). Whatever the reason, this is certainly not a result I would have predicted. 


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

71.16% of 319 respond yes. 

No genre cluster deviates from this pattern.

Comments: I find this result extremely surprising! It seems that fiero is more widespread than I might have expected. When I first saw the overal result, I thought it might be the product of a skewing effect in the sample, but the fact that no genre deviates from this pattern suggests instead that fiero is a widely enjoyed emotion. Of course, this question does not dig into how much frustration different players are willing to endure to get the fiero. More research on fiero is definately indicated! In terms of where I am working towards in DGD2, I am working now on the assumption that different players achieve fiero in different ways, according to their skills - that there might be Tactical, Strategic, Logistical and Diplomatic fiero, for instance. I am looking forward to exploring this further.

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.

73.67% of 319 respond yes. 

Lower results from:

  • Platform Games (120) - 57.4% of 61
  • Puzzle (510) - 54.5% of 33

Higher results from: 

  • Massively Multiplayer RPGs (228) - 83.8% of 111
  • Strategy (300) - 84.5% of 110

Comments: there's the Platform Games again. Diversity of play not a factor for fans of these games? Perhaps it is the clarity of purpose in these games (e.g. collect all widgets) that underlies their appeal. Fans of Puzzle games also produce a lower result... this is less suprising, perhaps, as the appeal of a good Puzzle game generally lies in its simplicity. It does suggest that people making Puzzle games should not bother to add unnecessary complexity to them. Since the core market for Puzzle games is shifting towards the Casual market, we shouldn't be wholly suprised.

Now look at the higher results. Strategy games are a completely obvious candidate;  the question is practically targeting fans of these games. MMORPGs are slightly more suprising, but it does show that fans of these games want there to be sufficiently diverse elements for the play to allow for different strategies and plans. Why MMORPG players and not cRPGs, though?

However, I consider this question to be somewhat weak, as it has two clauses which need not relate.

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

63.01% of 319 respond yes. 

No genre cluster deviates from this pattern.

Comments: if this is seen as a test for immersion, it suggests that (like fiero) this is something akin to a universal player draw.

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

36.05% of 319 respond yes.

Lower results from: 

  • Adventure (210) - 20.7% of 87
  • Action Adventure (213) - 19.7% of 66 

Higher results from:

  • Massively Multiplayer RPGs (228) - 46.8% of 111

Comments: Adventure and Action Adventure players are showing up as being more introverted than the norm. This is not a great suprise; these are problem solving games, and Logical approaches and Affiliative approaches can be considered contrary.

As for MMORPGs providing a higher result, this isn't a surprise - but the idea that more than half MMORPG players are happy to play alone suggests that the idea that MMORPG players are more extroverted than other game players is an incomplete picture. Many MMORPG players, it would seem, aren't gaining much of a personal benefit from the presence of other players. 


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

25.08% of 319 respond yes. 

No genre cluster deviates from this pattern.

Comments:  this is a test for the most obsessive player tendencies, and the result is quite low overall. That no genre cluster deviates significantly might just reflect the low incidence of the tendency overall, or it may be that players who express this tendency are not correlated by genre in any meaningful manner. 


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

39.81% of 319 respond yes. 

No genre cluster deviates from this pattern.

Comments: the comment for question 2 applies here to some extent. It does seem, however, that the desire to win is slightly less prevalent than the capacity to step back and take a breather when facing a tough challenge. I half expected Strategy games to show up as a deviation for this question; I guess there are indeed many people who play Strategy games to win.

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.”

63.64% of 319 respond yes. 

Higher results from:

  • Simulation (400) - 79.1% of 43

Comments: it seems that fans of Simulation games might be less interested in completing games than other players. Since the popular sim games are usually fairly 'toyplay' in their approach, this is not much of a surprise.

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

22.57% of 319 respond yes. 

Lower results from:

  • Role-Playing Games (220) - 15.0% of 233
  • Massively Multiplayer RPGs (228) - 9.0% of 111

Comments: one can hardly be surprised that players of cRPGs want a vast world to explore! Similarly, the idea that the draw of MMORPGs is partly in the vastness of their worlds is not exactly suprising. Perhaps this  relates to question 12; the more introverted MMORPG players might be there for the vast world, and not for the other players.

Final Disclaimer

This survey was provided as a means of explaining the DGD1 model to a wider audience. The use of the data here is highly speculative, and one should not assume that anything revealed here is anything other than a curiosity; a faint indication of vague trends. Nonetheless, it does point out a few suprising results - particularly in those questions which do not significantly deviate by genre cluster.

I hope that you will feel free to share your impressions of these results in the comments, as there is plenty of room for interpretation!

Why Publishers Flourish and Developers Wither

Why do publishers seem to thrive while developers fall by the wayside? Perhaps it is because publishers are obsessively focussed upon what is required for their own survival, while developers generally just want to make games.

Although I am not well versed in economics, it seems to me that all business is about purchasing lottery tickets. These tickets vary as to their price (the cost of investment), the chance of winning (the risk) and the payout (the return on investment). In broad strokes, the dominant strategy is therefore to minimise risk and maximise payout. Unfortunately, it transpires that every project has a certain risk attached, and this can never be eliminated, nor accurately predicted. The payout is similarly difficult to ascertain in advance. Once this is realised, the dominant strategy shifts: buy as many (low risk) lottery tickets as you can find.

Indeed, it has been demonstrated that the safest form of gambling is the stock market. Buying a diverse portfolio of shares is akin to buying many mid to low risk lottery tickets.

Publishers flourish (generally) because they work on the basis of portfolios of games (or in other media, of books, films, TV shows etc.) Since the risk and payout of individual projects cannot be known in advance, having a handful of lottery tickets is the safest approach. Several will fail, but if you have balanced your portfolio well enough, sufficient numbers will succeed to allow for an overall profit. The more steps the publisher takes to minimise risk (for example, by purchasing a license - sports, film, celebrity, TV etc.), the better the chance that the portfolio will show significant profit and the publisher will survive.

Developers wither (generally) because they tend to lack the resources to work on multiple game projects. They usually work on single game projects. They believe that this will work, because they know the game they are making is "good", by which it should be understood that they are making a game they want to play. In effect, developers expend great time and effort to manufacture a single lottery ticket - often one with high risk and low payout. Some get lucky. Most fail.

In the indie community, the situation is slightly better in that the cost of building a new lottery ticket is lower. Also, because the price of the tickets is lower, the returns can be much lower and still imply a profit - which is in effect a means of minimising risk. But still, the indie developers that succeed are those which either manage to get a portfolio together (PopCap I salute you!) or those that happen upon a "golden ticket". These latter souls often still fail in the end, because very few individuals are ever fortunate enough to find multiple "golden tickets".

The number of game designers who have founded multiple successful franchises can be counted on the fingers of one hand - even if you lost a few fingers in a farming accident.

Against this backdrop, I find myself reluctant to make games that cost more than a fairly modest amount to make, and I find myself constantly looking for new business models that might be applied to development to increase the chances of survival. But as development costs rise, the situation for developers becomes gradually worse unless they give up on making their own games and begin manufacturing products tailored for publishers (not an appealing prospect for many people). Intuitively, alliances could mitigate risks, but alliances between developers seem difficult to broker. Developers want to make the games they want to make. All other matters are secondary. Even their own survival.

I doubt this situation is going to change any time soon.

Creative Anarchy

Aswanimarket_scene_med_5watercolor_and_i What if we could make money from making games on our own, without having to join a giant corporation? What if the indie games community could leverage distributed networks to create an attractive game engine that might be used by many people in a diverse fashion? What if there was a new business model based upon creative anarchy instead of the packaged goods policy that currently dominates games?

Although greed is practically endemic in modern society, it is not something I particularly want to support. I am increasingly more interested in finding new models for wealth distribution, rather than being focused on wealth acquisition, and I am especially cautious about the amount of economic power we yield to corporations whose sole purpose is to generate money with no concern for the environmental, social or economic consequences of that goal.

To try and demonstrate what I mean, let us examine an arbitrary case. The largest game company in the world, Electronic Arts, posted a 2006 turnover of $2.95 billion, 60% of which is gross profit. They employ 7,200 people; based on the annual survey of game wages, I’m going to assume an average salary of $60,000, ergo about 15% of their turnover goes to their employees.

Now without digging too much into tax and other such nonsense, we can see that in broad strokes four times as much money is going to the stockholders of EA rather than to their employees. Indeed, if EA were to pay out all their profit to their employees it would amount to a quarter of a million dollar bonus per employee every year.

(I have put aside the money EA generates for retail – perhaps $1.5 billion – as I have no way examining how much of this goes to Walmart stockholders, and how little goes to independent retailers).

I’m not suggesting that this economic model is inherently immoral, but speaking for myself I see money paid to stockholders as money going to people who already have enough money to live on and therefore not significantly contributing to the abolition of poverty and the generation of employment. As a corporation, EA has no interest in these kinds of issues. But as an individual, I have much more freedom to define my own economic ethics.

What if there was an alternative business model which distributed the wealth generated from certain games over a wider population?

I think a lot about how tabletop role-playing games functioned. During their heyday, they were being played by many different people, many of which created entertaining campaigns and characters for their own play groups. This was an example of distributed creativity; the people publishing the tabletop RPGs provided tools, the players created their own games.

If the same system could be applied to videogames, the game materials that were created for a single play group could potentially be made available to a wider audience. Imagine a situation whereby everything made in this ‘home brew’ manner was available for sale at small prices (the micro-transaction model which is made possible by the internet). Individuals could make a certain amount of “pocket money” from exercising creativity, and those so inclined could form small companies to produce content for sale, or set up ‘vendors’ to distribute content. The company who provided the tools could potentially offer their basic tools for free, their advanced tools for a fee, and take a small percentage of all the microtransactions as well.

Which brings me to The Folklore System, a new project idea I’ve been mulling over for a while, but am now starting to explore as a development option. The goal is to create a generalised system for expressing tales of the kind we find in mythology and folklore – it doesn’t take much to see that what I am talking about is a kind of stylised computer RPG system. It wouldn’t have any of the complexity which attracts the usual RPG audience, I’m afraid, because that is too narrow an audience to target. Rather, the system would be designed to work for the largest possible audience.

I imagine the system will work from the following kinds of components (building on the framework developed for FreeSpeak):

  • Personas, which are character templates (with various degrees of customisation). These might correspond with specific figures – Heracles, Guan Yu, Gilgamesh – or might be more general templates for building new characters – Athenian Hero, Nubian Princess, Norse Berserker etc. These personas belong to rigidly defined classes e.g. Hero, Heroine, Helper, Friend, Enemy, Nemesis etc. for reasons explained below.
  • Locations, which are areas in which gameplay or storyplay take place. They can be specific locations – The Temple of Artemis, The River Styx, The Fortress at He Fei – or they can be general locations – Mountain Pass, Dense Forest, Secluded Beach.
  • Scenes, which are templates for gameplay or storyplay. For instance, a Fight scene might specify a set of positions and a set of outcomes; a Love Scene might specify just positions, an Escape might specify starting positions and a target position and so forth. Each Scene represents a particularly type of gameplay or a non-interactive scene. Scenes use the classes of Personas: e.g. a Love Scene occurs between a Hero and a Heroine; a Fight between Hero/Heroine, Friends and Enemies and so forth.
  • Storygames then consist of a sequence of Scenes set in Locations and starring specific Personas who participate in certain Scenes. Transition from Scene to Scene can be static (a fixed story) or dynamic depending upon outcome, depending upon the definition of Scenes.

All three of the components can be supplied by anyone with the necessary tools, and similarly anyone can create a Storygame by combining the relevant components. Different skills would be required to create Personas (which require textures and possibly animations), Locations (which require general artistic skills) and Scenes (which require logical scripting skills and game design). Remember that Scenes are general cases – any scene can be applied to any Location. The key to this is requiring Locations to have specified a certain set of positions (entry point, prison, ambush etc); it is these defined positions which are used by Scenes. 

Notice that the difficult part is creating Personas, Locations and Scenes. Making a Storygame is so easy that anyone can do it, as you simply specify the sequence of Scenes along with their Locations, and any default Personas that apply. From a story perspective, these tales will be simple and codified – this is why the template it is built upon is folklore, which can be expressed more simply than an arbitrary story.

Furthermore, with some basic parameterisation, we can afford the players a tremendous amount of choice as to how they play. For instance, a particular player could decide they are not interested in playing out combat of any kind. By unchecking the ‘Combat’ box in their Folklore client, they can browse all the Storygames available that contain no fighting at all. Similarly, a player could uncheck the ‘Romance’ box to avoid any hanky panky. (I imagine individual vendors would develop their own focus i.e. one vendor might specialise in non-violent romances). 

I am not intending this to be a dialogue heavy system. In fact, I am wondering if it is possible to specify some 100 lines of dialogue by class for each Persona and use these fixed lines of dialogue as the backbone to develop generic dramatic situations, possibly with the capacity for each Storygame to have supplemental dialogue suitable for use with any Persona. Animations would be used supplementally to express the tone of the dialogue. This element is speculative at best at this stage.

Ideally, I would like it if some individual Storygames were free but self contained so that they would serve as an entry point for new players (most likely, the free Storygames would have limits e.g. a Scene limit and fixed Personas). 

Alternatively, players would be able to develop their Personas over the course of many Storygames, in a manner not unlike an RPG game. In this regard, each Storygame becomes something akin to a Module for a tabletop RPG (albeit shorter). The key to this is that the player does not just play a single Persona, but in fact develops a collection of ‘dramatic personae’ that relate to each other – each Hero has a Heroine (and vice versa), a Helper, some Friends, Enemies, a Nemesis etc. specified. Then when a particular Storygame has a scene which specifies (say) “Helper directs Hero to Location” or “Heroine rescues Hero from Enemies” the appropriate instances are substantiated for that adventure. (Storygames would also be able to specify Personas as intrinsic components when necessary, allowing a specific story to have specific Enemies, for instance).

For example, the Hero Persona Jason would have Heracles as a Friend, Medea as a Heroine (and possibly also as a Nemesis!), various Greeks as Friends, and all manner of different nations (Spartans, Trojans, Amazons etc.) as default Enemies. 

I hope it’s clear that what might result would not be like any of the game and story systems we currently have or are developing. I’m categorically not suggesting that this is a better approach than other people are pursuing – I believe that drama games are a vast uncharted territory which will support many different approaches. This is just one possibility.

The idea is to foster a kind of creative anarchy – a situation whereby those participating in the Folklore system can share their Personas, Locations and Scenes with each other (for a small price), and use them to create Storygames which they can offer up to all comers as stand alone games, or collect them together to make Campaigns. 

I doubt the total revenue produced by such a system would hit the billions of dollars, but suppose it were able to make a few million dollars (less than 1% of EA’s turnover) on the back of a few thousand people contributing to the creative elements, it might create employment and cashflow for a diverse set of people – and all without them having to work for a large intractable multinational corporation.

If this model of creative anarchy could be made to be successful, it might support a number of different generalised frameworks of play focussing on art, or specific types of play or anything else we care to turn our attention towards. It could be a whole new business model for games and nongames. Or, it might just be a pipedream. 

I for one am happy to be caught dreaming.

The opening image is Market Scene 5, by Robert Aswani, which I found here. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.

Calvin, Hobbes & Caillois

Calvin_hobbes_640_480 If you've ever wondered how Huizinga and Callois apply to Calvin and Hobbes, you should see this piece over at King Lud IC. Here's a quote:

Calvinball is one of the treasures of the strip, and the titular duo are often depicted engaging into a completely random series of reversals as they take turns changing rules to try and reverse their situation. At one point Hobbes states that the only rule in Calvinball is never do the same thing twice – Calvinball is the epitome of a paidic game.


The symposium is behind us now; thanks to everyone who participated - I personally found it most elucidating to look at a variety of play specs illustrating different people's perspectives on play. I'm planning to hold more symposia in the future on different topics, but probably no more frequently than once a quarter.

Some things that might be coming up:

  • Creative anarchy. The basic business model at work in the games industry assumes a small group of people making games with money from a large financial backer (a publisher) who reaps most of the profit. Are there different business models which might distribute the wealth more evenly over a larger group of people?
  • Wild Games. Having mentioned this in a comment elsewhere I now have no reason to keep it to myself. I want to make games based around playing as and with animals, and I have several such games/nongames in the pipeline (but please bear in mind that only a small fraction of the games that enter the pipeline emerge as finished games!)
  • Skeptics. I've been meaning to write on this for a while; can I find a way to talk about this framing belief system that marks out the value to society that skeptics can offer without overly focusing on the negative consequences of dogmatically skeptical beliefs...
  • Einstein and God. The iconic scientist of the twentieth century was pro-religion but broadly agnostic. In his philosophical papers he talks of the need to give up the notion of a 'personal god'. What did Einstein mean, and how valid is this viewpoint?

I'm also on the brink of beginning some "open design", in the manner championed by Danc of Lost Garden, but there are a few matters I need to resolve first.

Have a fun week everybody!

Early Playground Worlds

Playground_1 When a child enters a new playground for the first time, they are assaulted by choices – swing sets, slides, see-saws, merry-go-rounds, climbing frames… the playground offers them toys (there is  no goal beyond personal entertainment) and they excitedly begin experimenting with the amusements on offer.  

The term ‘playground world’ was coined (possibly by myself) to describe the kind of games typified by the current Grand Theft Auto franchise in which the player is presented with a wealth of entertainments in a game context. The success of this approach is marked not only in the huge commercial achievements of these games, but also the extent to which companies attempt to copy this formula (often unsuccessfully). These modern playground worlds are expensive systems to build because, according to the obvious logic at least, they require enough different “toys” (vehicles, mini-missions, equipment) to provide the sense of choice and the illusion of freedom.

Recently, it has occurred to me that the kind of play indicated by a ‘playground world’ has been with us for a considerably longer time than perhaps I previously considered – although of course, it was much simpler in the past. 

Let us go back in time to one of the most incredible years in European gaming history… back to the 8-bit era of flimsy plastic home computers. Back to the year 1985.

Bbc_elite Elite (Firebird, 1985) 

David Braben’s Elite is considered by many to be one of the most remarkable achievements of the 8-bit era. (I met him briefly in a bar in London, introduced by one of my bosses who had worked with him at Firebird). I assume everyone is aware of the game, but for those who are not it is a basic space trading game in which you can fly to any system (or even to new galaxies), buy and sell goods, fight pirates, mine asteroids or go renegade and fight the police.

Elite was inspired by the seminal tabletop RPG Traveller (GDW, 1977) – it even included the same sample character, Commander Jameson. This is not a criticism, but it does serve to demonstrate just how influential the tabletop RPG games of the 70’s and 80’s were in the development of modern videogames. 

What makes Elite qualify as an early playground world? Of course, this is a subjective decision. However, the key elements as I see it are as follows:

  • Freedom to travel: you can travel to any system, explore a huge area of space, and different areas feel different largely due to simple changes such as altering the political      stability of a system i.e. changing the frequency and intensity of attacks on the player.
  • Choice of activities: although there are not a great many different activities available, there is some choice – one can ship cargo (the most reliable money spinner), mine      asteroids, earn bounties for defeating criminals, engage in piracy and steal cargo, or even attack the police and become a fugitive. 

Both of these elements were incredible back in 1985! We simply hadn’t seen anything like it, and Elite (for the BBC micro computer) entranced me.

Of course, it’s an old game, offering only wireframe vector graphics, but it remains remarkable. For instance, one can download a version of the original game for the PC and the file is a mere 97k! That’s vastly smaller than the help file for most PC games. 


160pxmercenary_pic_2 Mercenary (Novagen, 1985)

Also out in 1985 was another wireframe graphics classic for the Commodore 64, by Paul Woakes. This one, alas, has not aged as well. The screenshot here was the best I could find for the game. Yes, it’s just about that thrilling graphically. But remember, in 1985 most games expected you to perform a single activity, and also that 3D graphics were still amazing (even as wireframes) – this is only two years after the wireframe graphics of the (second) Star Wars (Atari, 1983) arcade game had wowed people with its “realism”. 

Since you are unlikely to have played this game, allow me to summarise: you have crashed on an unknown planet, and have to find a way to escape. You can move around on foot, or board any of several wireframe vessels to fly your way around. The world is vast, and contains many hidden areas, some of which contain wireframe corridors with more hidden vessels.

The key elements which made this game feel like a playground world were: 

  • Freedom to travel: the planet’s surface is a flat green plain with roads (white lines) and buildings (white frames), with many hidden buildings, and corridors inside some  buildings which can be explored.
  • Variety of Vehicles: the game was compelling at the time because each of the different vehicles had very different properties – and some were amusing, too. The Cheese, for instance, was one of the best vehicles in the game.

The game was a hit, spawning several sequels. 


Paradroid Paradroid (Graftgold, 1985) 

The last game in the class of ’85 I want to discuss is the classic Paradroid, by Graftgold stalward Andrew Braybrook (who I worked with briefly during the last days of Graftgold). This is one of my most fondly remembered games, and for many years was an all time favourite. Once again, graphics are not the strong point – you and every other droid in the game is represented by a circle with a number indicating the code of the droid in question. That said, the bas relief effects used were groundbreaking at the time and seemed really quite impressive compared to other games of the time.

Paradroidinfluence The essence of the play is that you are an experimental influence droid who has been sent to a ship full of malfunctioning droids. You must pacify the ship, which is to say, destroy all of the robots. However, what made this game exceptional was that you had two choices of ways to do this: you can destroy them with weaponry (but not all droids have weapons) or you can take control of them by playing an innovative ‘influence game’ (pictured) which remains one of the best integral minigames in any videogame to date. 

The dynamic of play is unlike any other. One can only control the different droids for varying lengths of time, usually related to their power level – which in turn relates to the droids code number. A pathetic 123 cleaning droid lasts a while, but can do little, while an awesome 883 battledroid (with devastating disruptor weapons) would not last as long. In between are many other droids, such as the 476 – a maintenance droid that happens to have a handy welding laser. The higher the code number, the stronger the droid would be in the influence game. The result is the player ‘climbs the ladder’, working from weaker to stronger droids – but ultimately must go back down to a lower droid for stability. One can take control of the top droid – code 999 – but not for long. Strong strategies revolved around the sequence of acquisitions and eliminations, although the game could also be played tactically with no forethought.

The key elements which made this feel like a playground world were: 

  • Paradroidmap Freedom to explore: the entire ship is open to you. There are no artificial barriers to prevent you exploring – although certain decks have many more battledroids on them, and are therefore harder to traverse. Deck transitions are via elevators on the map, but the feeling of exploring a ‘world’ (the ship) is palpable.
  • Choice of activities: admittedly only two – use weapons or control by influence – but still, the player is afforded choices.
  • Variety of droids: each droid feels like a completely different entity, with a different power level, and different weapons in many cases.

Paradroid was remade several times - by Steve Turner as Quazatron (Graftgold, 1986) on the ZX Spectrum, as Paradroid 90 (Graftgold, 1990) for the Amiga and Atari ST. These games discarded the convention of seeing droids as their code numbers, but the play of the games remained much in the spirit of the original. 

The lack of a save game in the original makes modern emulated versions all the more playable.


Other Games 

I’m certain there are other games from this era for other platforms that I am either not aware of or am overlooking that also fit this criteria of an early ‘playground world’.

Ultima IV was released in 1985, but I think does not quite meet the criteria by requiring the player to solve puzzles to progress – freedom of exploration is curtailed structurally. However, I have not actually played this game and I may be doing it a disservice in characterising it in this way. 

Lords of Midnight (Beyond, 1985) is another candidate from the same year – in this one the player has the freedom to explore and has a choice of activity (quest or fight; negotiate or defeat) and a variety of troops – you can recruit a large number of different allies in parallel. However, it’s turn based play feels markedly less like a playground, and the variety is not a choice the player makes but an accumulation of more and more options.

I welcome suggestions for other games which might be considered as early playground worlds, especially those from 1985 or earlier. 



In 1985, it wasn’t possible for the most technically advanced games to support wide scale activities because the high tech games were in the arcades, and had to be designed to encourage players to put coins in slots. On the home computers, pioneers like David Braben, Paul Woakes and Andrew Braybrook considered new ways of structuring play, taking advantage of the fact that in this context players could play for as long as they liked. 

These early playground worlds are remarkable because they created a kind of open play from exceptionally limited resources. They showed that the elements that make a playground world interesting and compelling need not be expensive – provided the game itself is simple and cost effective. These elements appear to be:

  • Freedom of exploration
  • Choice of activities
  • Variety of acquirable avatars (vehicles, droids etc.)

Any game which meets two out of three of these general conditions seems to feel like a playground world. However, freedom of exploration must not be constrained by any kind of overt ‘hoop jumping’ or it would not represent actual freedom (although partitioning of later areas is probably acceptable). Also, variety of avatars should perhaps reflect the choice of a single instance, not an accumulation of units in a strategic sense. 

I played and enjoyed all three of these games in 1985, and all three have exerted a certain influence on my game design work. I consider it incredible that they managed to achieve so much with such limited resources – an example of technical limitations forcing greater creativity. By examining how games with so few developmental resources managed to support a kind of play akin to the freedom and excitement of a child’s playground we can perhaps learn how we can create the same unique experiences in the games we choose to make today.