Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Unofficial GDC Blogger Bar Meetup

I'm missing the official blogger meetup Wednesday, so here is a night time location for Thursday. The real benefit to the unofficial meeting spot is that it is a bar. Unlike convention halls, bars tend to serve frosty beverages in a wide variety of pleasing flavors.
  • Date: Thursday, March 23rd,
  • Time: 7pm. If the conversation is good, we'll likely go for quite some hours afterwards.
  • Location: O'flahertys Pub (http://www.oflahertyspub.com/) in San Pedro Square. The address is 25 N San Pedro St., San Jose. It is roughly a 10 minute walk from the convention hall at San Pedro Square.
  • Directions: Here are the Google Maps directions.
The offer to buy folks who read this site a beer still stands. If you have any questions, drop me an email at danc [at] lostgarden [dot] com.

take care

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Paintbox games: Games that serve as augmented creativity tools

In my job, I constantly run across people who claim they can’t draw, can’t write or can’t tell stories. They readily pronounce that they lack a single creative bone in their entire body. Yet when you give such folks the correct tools and the right social support, they produce amazing works of craft and art.

Over the years, I’ve been thinking a lot about the use of tools to augment the creativity of individuals. The problem of the creatively blocked individual is almost always two fold

  • They lack the technical skills to make the pictures that they envision in their heads. I’ve heard many times the phrase “I can’t draw a straight line” as if such a purely technical skill has anything to do with creative instinct.
  • They lack confidence: Over the years, they have told themselves tall tales about how non-creative they are. In most cases, these are simple excuses and self justification.

How games can augment a user’s creativity
Games can provide solutions to both of these issues.

Populous (1989): A classic paintbox game

First, they can remove the technical limitations by providing an easy to use playground tailored to the skills of an average human being. Learning how to move a stick of graphite in such a manner to render a recognizable human portrait takes years of training. Moving some sliders around to change the color of an avatar’s hair is a technical skill that can be learned in seconds.

Second, games can provide built in feedback mechanisms that can encourage people to continue when they would have otherwise given up. Games don’t laugh at you, at least not in a hurtful way, when you fail to draw a straight line. Instead, they can give you stickers and stars when you do something interesting. Consider the Happy Room Academy in Animal Crossing. It rewards you when you start arranging your furniture and prompts you with helpful tips.

Aren’t paintbox games just sim games?
It can be easy to write off the concept of paintbox games as just another name for the existing simulation genre. There is certainly an overlap, but augmented creativity is really a much broader concept than a single genre. A paintbox game has three characteristics:

  • The player can build or assemble something new and unique to the world.
  • The game provides tools that facilitate and reduce the cost of content creation
  • The game uses game mechanics and feedback systems to encourage players to create.

Examples of Paintbox games
There are numerous paintbox games. Augmented creativity is a game mechanic that crosses genre boundaries and often results in the creation of entirely new genres. Some example games that succeed in dramatically reducing the barriers to entry for creative activities:

  • Pinball Construction Set: One of the first games that I recall that was a blatant paintbox game. This was closer to a pure tool than most with no feedback systems.

  • Populous: Though arguably a strategy game at its core, much of the appeal of the game was the ability to paint your own worlds using a simple landscape sculpting tool. As with many painting tools, the tokens that you place on the map have implicit connections with other tokens in the environment. Your art has meaning within the construct of the game. These feedback systems help guide and tutor the player’s creativity during the critical learning period. Populous remains to this day one of the reasons why I believe that games have a future as a grand artistic medium.

  • Animal Crossing: You can garden, design shirts and redecorate your house with very little effort. The tool interfaces are nearly idiot proof and the options remarkably broad. There is certainly an element of fantasy fulfillment in this game, but the majority of the game is about using a village as a palette for your creativity. Every element of the game encourages you to dabble without the fear of punishment and with the promise future rewards.

  • The Sims: The Sims is another social and environmental paint program. Much like Animal Crossing, The Sims realizes that people not trained in the technical craft of color and light tend to think instead in terms of symbolic objects and relationships. Sims builds this meta data into your palette of objects

  • The Movies: The Movies eases the intricate task of creating movie-like story. You don’t have to hire real actors or develop sets. Instead the game gives you many of these things and lets you play.
Themes in paintbox games
There are several themes in paintbox games:

  • Games that focus on providing easy to use tools
  • Games that focus on the process of creation
  • Creativity that extends beyond traditional visual and audio definitions
Games that focus on providing easy to use tools
Games like Pinball Construction Set and Animal Crossing tend to be pure paintbox titles that give the player very easy to use tools with simple feedback mechanism that encourage them to create. What and how something is made is less important than the fact that they make something.

Games that focus on the process of creation
The Movies and Populous also encourage creation, but they have extensive simulation and feedback systems to hold the players attention during the act of creation. Often the player realizes that they’ve created a unified work of art only after they partially finished the game. The ‘how’ something gets made is critical to the game’s initial appeal.

A title like the Sims provides both easy to use tools and feedback on the process of creation. Sometimes you need the heavy game-like systems that baby step the player through the act of creation to facilitate the player’s acceptance of the act of creativity. It can be the hook that convinces traditional gamers to dabble and play.

Creativity that extends beyond traditional visual and audio definitions
With computer games comes the ability to simulate real world phenomena. The various Sim and Tycoon games allow people to create worlds and situations that are available to only a small minority of the world’s population. The story telling capabilities of the Sims and the Movies allow players to create complex relationships between various characters. This goes far beyond just dropping pretty pixels onto the canvas.

I personally find this aspect of paintbox games highly delightful. No longer does the vision in your head need to come out as rigid visual images. Instead, with the flick of a controller, you can create an entire breathing living world. The evolution of paintbrush games in the decades to come should provide truly magical experiences for the creative spark in all of us.

The urge to create is quite different than the urge to conquer. Adding paintbox elements to your title can help your title appeal to a very different demographic than is reached by traditional competitive or conquest oriented game play. (I hesitate to use Chris Bateman’s terminology here from his audience models since I find it difficult to find an direct match.)

Depending on whom you listen to, upwards of 30% of the population in the US are members of the creative class, people who spend their days creating and corralling complex information. I’m willing to bet that a good number of this demographic is underserved by the current limited selection of creative titles on the market.

A grand opportunity
The paintbox concept is still in its infancy, despite the fact that it has been around for at least 23 years. This is a grand opportunity for a young designer to make their mark on the history of game development. Here are a couple of issues that are just begging for innovative solutions.
  • Often the urge to add feedback systems to creative tools results in micromanagement. This increases the cost of creation unnecessarily and turns off many players. Games need to learn when to back off and let the creative players simply make things. Almost all games in the ‘sim’ genre suffer quite painfully from this issue.
  • Paintbox games have yet to fully tap into the social reward systems: Paintbox games still rely heavily on single player game mechanics in order to provide the player with feedback. These systems can be very rigid and have great difficulty interpreting the wide range of complex and subtle human messages that players can embed in their creations. As such, they often accidentally punish some wonderful creations. Including humans into the feedback cycle as Second Life has done with their player economy can dramatically change the quality of player creativity.
Of all the game designs on the market, a well done paintbox game is perhaps one of the most rare and exciting. They remain one of the main reasons I still play games.

Enough musings for a lazy Sunday night. Hope to see some of you at GDC next week.

Take care

Bizarre References for the Academic Slacker

Pinball Construction Set:

Different people react to paintbox game mechanics in different ways
“Grand Theft Auto lets you steal any car, and depending on the car you steal there may be objectives associated with it. I have the same problem in that case: I don't find unregulated potential liberating, I find it paralyzing. In GalCiv 2, I've got these base ships that are bristling - bristling, sir - with receptive nodes. I can affix parts to these things for longer than is rational, creating original designs to the exclusion of the game proper. Worse yet, my Adam Complex - the obsessive desire to catalog and name - kicks in with every class of sleek craft.

Monast. Sonor. Scintilline. Belial.

If I keep playing the campaign, I'm sure I'll just invent new parts, which will only cinch the noose. I don't think designers have committed some kind of sin. What I'm saying is that my own peculiarities turn those features into a kind of mental cul-de-sac, and by the time I've escaped them, I usually don't return. “

Audience models

The creative class

Edge cases:

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Never innovate halfway

Double Fine’s Psychonauts was an original game that by all indications did poorly in the marketplace. This has led to the odd comments from fence sitters (and misinformed publishers) that innovation is a failed strategy. Bad monkeys! Bad!

We often talk about “innovation” in product development as if it were a miraculous substance that always benefits a game. I also imagine a scene in an idyllic game development kitchen with a game designer wearing a chef hat. “This title needs a dash more innovation!” he cries and the sous chef scurries off to the back room to see if they have any left.

If only it were this simple. First, realize that there are different types of innovation and not all types are equally beneficial. There are many places we can start on this topic, but we should first start with the classics. Back in 1991, researchers Cooper and Kienschmidt wrote a paper that discusses classes of innovation and their impact on market adoption. The studies looked at the market success of three category of products
  • Low innovativeness products: Modifications to existing product lines
  • Moderately innovative products: Product line extensions
  • Highly innovative products: New to the world products.
Each category was measured on three factors:
  • Success rate: What percentage of new products broke even?
  • ROI: What was the average profitability of the products that broke even?
  • Market Share: What percentage of customer in the markets adopted the product?
By looking at the patterns that occur across many industries, we can gain insight into how to build successful innovative games in our industry.

Interpreting this data in the game world
Let's map this general product model onto the specifics of the current game market.
  • Low innovativeness products: Sequels or expansion packs
  • Moderately innovative products: Games that attempt to blend genres or establish new brands in established genres.
  • Highly innovative products: Games that attempt to create new genres
The results
The results of the study are fascinating. Common wisdom would suggest that as the product became more innovative, the success rate would drop off. After all innovation is directly correlated with risk, right?

Instead, the data shows a U-shaped curve instead of a downward slope. Highly innovative products are actually mildly more successful than their low innovation counterparts. Moderately innovative products on the other hand do the worst out of any of the categories. This pattern repeats itself in the other areas.

Less surprisingly, ROI is strongest for low innovativeness products and quite reasonable for highly innovative products. It is again miserable for moderate innovation products. Market share is also low for moderate innovation products.

The immediate lesson is that both low innovation and high innovation products can do quite well. If you end up in the middle, however you are in big trouble. Let's dig into the strange U-shaped curve in more detail.

Explaining the U-shape
There are lots of reasons why sequels and direct expansions are successful. Several include
  • Lower R&D risks. The game mechanics in a sequel are well-defined and can be reused. Generally, game sequels add more content and mild technological innovation. These are both well understood production areas that can be budgeted for and scoped appropriately.

  • Built-in audience. With an established brand, sequels sell to both old players and players who did not pick up the previous title. This results in higher customer sales per marketing dollar spent.
An alternate set of reasons explains why highly innovative games such as the Sims or Animal Crossing are successful despite not having the advantages of low innovation products.
  • Tapping pent up market demand: Highly innovative products tend to get a burst of adoption as word of mouth from excited users spreads the news that someone has finally released a game that meets their needs. This happened with Nintendogs, where many women became avid promoters of the game to their friends.

  • Less need for polish: Because demand is pent up, people tend to ignore many damning issues. For example, Brain Training’s limited set of mini-games quickly become repetitive. Yet people are willing to put up a flaw that would have destroyed a less innovative title. The title offers a unique, high value experience that cannot be replicated with substitute products.

  • Lack of competition: When you are first to the market with a high value product, you can often just breeze in and acquire customers with no worries about competition. The Sims managed such a feat with gamers who preferred to create and explore relationships. The game industry had been blatantly ignoring this massive audience and the Sims reaped the benefits of being the only one who saw the opportunity.
Finally, we get to the moderately innovative games. These titles are cursed with the worst of all worlds.
  • Higher R&D risks: When you try out new game mechanics it is much more likely that you need to spend copious amounts of time balancing the title. If you do not have this time, there is a good chance the game will be released with poorly polished game mechanics.
  • No built-in audience: A mildly innovative game satisfies no one. It doesn’t tap into a new market of underserved users. It doesn’t appease existing fans of particular title or brand.
  • Strong competition: Often moderately innovative products are classified as part of an existing genre. The genre addicts have their favorite title already so why purchase a new one?
Where would Psychonauts fit into this mix? It is a competently executed, traditional platform game wrapped in a wonderfully quirky exterior. This rings some warning bells. It is more of the same, but different enough to be scary. It falls into the no-mans land of not familiar enough and not innovative enough to make a mark on the industry.

One step further
Psychonauts also points us in the direction of identifying the factors that matter less than we might expect when creating an innovative game. Psychonauts poured incredible amounts of blood and sweat into creating a delightful story, filled with new and interesting characters and sparkling with humor. All these elements were highly original and yet the title overall was not innovative.

These are not primary differentiators in the marketplace. In general, the game mechanics of a title and the ties into real world interests determine the value of a title. Well executed plot and characters merely support and augment the underlying game mechanics. In a novel, the story is the value. In a game, the activity that the player engages in determines the value of the experience. These are two very different value propositions that you confuse at your own risk.

If your core game mechanics are recycled from another genre, slathering a layer of original (and very expensive) content on your title will do nothing to push it into the realm of high innovation. It unfortunately, might be enough to push you out of the safe zone of comfy sequels.

If you are going to make a sequel, realize that more of the same is actually a good thing. You are in the gaming equivalent of the shampoo business, producing the same old bottle of Finesse over and over again. Sure, you can mix it up with a little sticker that says “Now with stronger cleaning power”, but don’t get too many ideas about changing the world. That isn’t what your audience wants. Give them more of the same: more levels, deeper stories and prettier graphics.

If you are going to be original, make a title with original game mechanics that taps into an underserved audience. Knock your title out into left field. Don’t look at other games, they aren’t your competition. Instead look at other activities outside of gaming. Don’t worry too much about plot, graphics or the polish of your title. Instead focus on generating deep value with people who don’t even think of themselves as gamers.

Never go half way. Don’t say “It is a shooter, but you fire ducks instead of bullets.” This is generating a half-assed value proposition by addition or exception. It is the sort of innovation that kills a game in the marketplace. You confuse the customers and suffer from comparison to existing products.

Developing a game title will often consume years of your life. Making a game that is only ‘moderately innovative’ simply is not worth the effort. Each project must choose its focus.
  • Are you a craftsman who lovingly polishes an established genre?
  • Or are you an innovator who creates new genres?
If you fail to chose, you risk being stranded in the no man's land that lurks between the two strategies.

Take care

Comparison of first month sales for several titles: Pyschonauts: 12,000 units. God of War 200,000. Halo 2: 3.3 million. As a side note, 200,000 units for God of War are not great numbers considering the budget. They’ll cash in on this newly launched brand only if they do a sequel.

More tales of Psychonauts
“According to the most recent NPD figures, Psychonauts has moved nearly 51,000 copies on the Xbox, not quite 23,000 on the PlayStation 2, and a little more than 12,000 on the PC.

Developed by Grim Fandango creator Tim Schafer and his team at Double Fine Studios, Psychonauts is something of an industry-standard cautionary tale about innovation. Psychonauts is about the story of a young child stowaway at a summer camp for psychics who must enter into the minds of his fellow campers and the camp counselors, and it was originally planned as a high-profile Xbox exclusive with Microsoft itself as publisher. However, Microsoft dropped the project in March of 2004 with no reason given.

Schafer shopped Psychonauts around for months before finding a new publishing partner in Majesco. The game was released on the Xbox, PC, and PS2 earlier this year, and met with critical praise and consumer apathy. Majesco (and a number of analysts, Pachter included) had great expectations of the game's retail performance. When the sales didn't materialize and another high-profile Majesco title flopped in Advent Rising, the company lowered its projected revenues for the year by a third, the CEO Carl Yankowski resigned, and a number of shareholders sued as the stock plummeted.”

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

GDC means beverages

I’ll be in San Jose Thursday and Friday (23rd and 24th) to partake in the tail end of GDC. Unfortunately, that means I’ll be missing out on the general blog meet up on Wednesday.

If anyone who reads this site is around, I’d be delighted to buy you a beer. Drop me a note beforehand and we can set a time to meet up. My email (which I’ve been meaning to post on the site someplace) is danc [at] lostgarden.com.

Speaking of beer…
I adore GDC, not because of the content, but because of the camaraderie. Game developers are really just great people to get together in a group. Dig out some tall ones (chilled in never end supplies of hotel ice), gather a group of funny, intelligent and highly creative folks and chat until dawn. It doesn’t have to be about games. Politics, science, food…the conversation is guaranteed to be good. Those faces that stick around year-after-year end up becoming an oddly rarified family of peers.

For many years, my friends Lennart, Arno and I have had a tradition of swapping a suitcase full of beer from our respective local breweries. Since they are from the Netherlands, I always felt like I was getting the better end of the deal. Belgian beer is pure decadence. This year, they are locked away working on a project of the “None May Speak Its Name” variety. I think I’ll still bring a bottle or two of Seattle’s finest for old time’s sake.

Take care

PS: Here are the sessions that caught my eye:
  • Advanced Prototyping
  • Disrupting Development
  • Agile Methodology in Game Development: Year 3
  • Play Early, Play Often: Prototyping Side Meier’s Civilization IV
  • Spore: Preproduction Through Prototyping
  • Is That a Franchise in Your Pocket? An Animal Crossing: Wild World Case Study
  • Automated Online Game Balancing
  • Inspiration for Next Generation Designs
  • God of War: How the Left and Right Brains Learned to Love One Another
  • MMO Player-to-Player Sales, or You only paid $50 for that blaster?
  • The Game Studies Download: Top 10 Research Findings

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

The root of shock game advertising

I was flipping through my copy of EGM with my fiancĂ© just the other day. It was a rather embarrassing tour through the current gaming culture. In the first few pages, we perused the standard mixture of guns and ultra violence. “Look,” I pointed, “there’s Lara’s bum festooned with some charming grenade accessories. And check out those flying WW2 chaps on page 10. They certainly do bounce about when consumed in a massive fireball.”

Finally, we happened about a vivid image of a violated female corpse with a bloody bullet hole gaping in her forehead. Ah, the delightfully rank odor of publicly condoned misogyny. Apparently this is a great way to sell games. It is rare that you see such crude advertising images in movie, books or even comics, a market that supports far more extreme depictions of ultra violence. Yet they are commonplace in game advertising. It has always perplexed me.

The immediate response is to blame the marketing departments. Obviously, they are bastards. Yet, in the broader scheme of business, marketing is mostly a mercenary that attempts to convey a product’s value proposition to a potential customer. At its core, game advertising merely reflects and promotes the value that is exchanged between product developers and their customers.

So let’s turn this question of shock advertising around. What value proposition are mainstream games promising to customers that inspire our advertising to look like this drek?

Visceral Feedback
To find the answer we need to go back to the basics. Games at their heart are about feedback cycles in which the player performs an action and the game provides either a reward or a punishment. The potency of your feedback system has a major impact on the addictiveness of your game play. Thus feedback systems are one of the most heavily developed areas in the majority of game titles.

Early in the history of games, developers realized that the emotional impact of the game’s feedback can be easily magnified by using visually rich and shocking imagery. The introduction of faked ‘dangerous’ stimuli makes your reptile brain react in a physical manner is not so different than the thrills of a rollercoaster ride. You are never in any danger, but critical portions of your brain react as if you are. The brain evolved to deal with real threats, not 3D video cards pumping out super realistic explosions complete with force feedback. The flow of blood in your brain changes, your heartbeat increases and the excitement builds. The game play goes from interesting to thrilling. I call this ‘visceral feedback.’

Visceral stimulus enhances existing reward systems in games. For example, it is easily arguable that the fatalities of Mortal Combat improved the actual game experience. The thrill of finally ripping out your opponent’s spine kick starts your adrenaline and wakes up your brain. For another example of visceral feedback, check out this simple yet effective Flash game at http://www.winterrowd.com/maze.swf. The use of sound is particularly nicely done.

The core value proposition of games?
Visceral feedback is a very popular technique with both customers and game developers.

With customers, several very public blockbuster success stories such as GTA, Doom and Quake suggest that “Visceral feedback means better games”. The link is questionable, but still the theory has become accepted as The Way of Things. Experienced gamers, indoctrinated into the gaming culture accept and promote the benefit of visceral rewards. They historically have put their money into better graphics and more extreme settings whenever the opportunity arises. Better visceral feedback has become a key indication of game quality, despite the general lack of real world correlation.

The business side of game development also appears to support the use of visceral feedback. This makes the most sense in light of modern game design’s attempt to constantly reduce and mitigate short term risk.
  • Generally visceral feedback relies on the production of new assets, not the creation of new game play systems. Asset production is a well studied and highly reliable activity that is unlikely to introduce schedule slippage.
  • The advances in hardware mean that taking advantage of new hardware allows designers to easily pump out a new title with the same mechanics and updated graphics. They merely increase the impact of the risk / reward systems and hope that this will give them a competitive advantage in the market place. By targeting R&D only at technology and not in the areas of game mechanics or business models, companies also reduce short term risk. Why bother creating a unique competitive advantage when you can recycle one?
Naturally, these two sides of the coin feed upon one another. Over many years, these patterns have led many in the industry to make the implicit assumption that the ultimate value proposition of games is to “provide players with visceral experiences.”

Marketing’s response
If you boil a game’s core value proposition down to “providing visceral experiences” then the job of marketing is to promise increasingly powerful visceral experiences. Marketing people aren’t being obnoxious. They are simply doing their job based off the assumed benefits of gaming and assumed desires of the gaming population.

Unfortunately, game marketers are also encouraged to over promise a game’s visceral rewards due to the bizarre structure of our retail channel. We live in a “Buy and then Try” environment. The promise of an intense experience is often more cost effective at creating sales than actually developing a real experience. A photorealistic box illustration costs much less than a photorealistic game environment. Yet arguably the box and perhaps a few screenshots are more effective at driving sales. This is not a recent trend. The advertising of 2600 titles such as Combat are direct forefathers of the visuals used to promote modern games.

Shock advertising comes into play when someone always increases the viciousness of their ads in an attempt to compete in a market where the emotional rawness of your product is a major selling factor. Customers have two reactions. They can either leave gaming behind in disgust or they can learn to ignore the shock ads. Over time, the shock ads have increased in potency in order to reach an increasingly jaded, distrustful and hardcore audience.

Of course, non-gamers see gaming ads as well. They assume that the highly prevalent shock ads display the true nature of gaming. There are massive generation issues at work here, but gaming ads are structured in a way that deliberately and intentionally provokes an intense negative response from outsiders. A gamer would retort, “They are meant to be shocking, duh.”

The problems with visceral feedback
The response of marketing reveals a deeper issue. Basing a game on visceral feedback is a remarkably shallow value proposition for your customers. Visceral rewards might seem exciting for the customer and easy to create for the developer, but they have some longer term issues.
  • The burn out rate on visceral rewards is very high. Sure, each fatality in Mortal Combat was rather cool the first few times you saw it, but after a while you begin thinking of them more strategically. A fatality rapidly turns into an abstract demonstration of skill and finesse. This deeper appreciation of the game mechanics can often be serviced using reward mechanisms that are much less expensive to produce. Players quickly stop experiencing the visceral nature of the reward.
  • Since value diminishes quickly, customers get little value for their money. Where a game like chess might last a lifetime, most games that rely on visceral rewards last mere hours. The gamer value per dollar is perceived as quite low. The more desperate gamers with money to spare burn through multiple games. This artificially buoys the industry. The less desperate (or less well heeled) will often give up on gaming completely due to the lack of value that it provides.
From a business perspective, visceral rewards are also one of the least effective.
  • Rapidly diminishing return on investment: Past a certain level of quality, customers have difficulty telling the difference between ‘good visuals’ and ‘great visuals’. Developers can quickly find themselves spending substantial amounts of money with no obvious return on their investment.
  • Poor competitive insulation: Great graphics and other visceral rewards are one of the easiest elements to add to a title and the most difficult to maintain leadership in over time. Any publisher can hire a bevy of talented artists and pump out gloriously sexy movies. Because the cost of entry is so low, it is easy for others to do the same. Competition drives down profit. Ironically, short term risk mitigation development strategies result in long term market instability.
To summarize, games that rely primarily on visceral rewards end up causing several issues:
  • They provide poor value to customers. Long term this lack of value often alienates customers.
  • They are a poor business practice that seriously increases the competitive risks for your company and the industry.
  • As a side effect, they encourage increasingly demented ads that strive to promote a shallow value proposition. This helps alienate both marginal customers and the world at large.
You are responsible for shock advertising
If you develop a game that is ‘the same, but more intense’, you are directly responsible for the miserable and degrading ads that it spawns. You set forth a shallow value proposition in your product that the marketoids promote to the best of their ability.

You are also responsible in part for the vitriol flung at the game industry by an offended moral majority. I’m all for freedom of speech, but when the vast majority of content in a medium is radically out of step with other popular forms of media, there is something questionable going on. It would be the rough equivalent of the entire movie industry only producing porn. When you produce a shallow product that feeds on the subconscious base instincts of your customers, you should expect to get a bit of well deserved flak tossed your way.

Alternative approaches
There are alternatives and they start with adjusting the core value proposition of your game. It turns out that visceral rewards are only one technique for increasing the emotional impact of feedback systems in games. Here are several alternative feedback techniques which are highly effective, lower cost and have much lower burnout rates. For example:
  • Real world rewards: Rewards that tie into real world goals of the customer. Examples include money in gambling games or the promise of better mental capabilities in the DS Brain Training titles.
  • Social rewards: Reward that leverage or help build social networks. Examples include prestige-based feedback in a title like Counterstrike’s leader board or Guild housing in an MMO.
  • Nested rewards: The nesting of carefully balanced feedback systems that augment and encourage the continual learning of new strategies. An example includes the turn structure in Civilization in which various building schedules encourage the player to continue for ‘one more turn.”
Possible paths towards better advertising
In order to have more positive advertising messages, you need to create games that have a positive benefit for your customers.
  • Stop relying on visceral rewards as your game’s primary selling point. Use visceral rewards sparingly in your designs. You may lose a few hormonal teenage ‘hard core’ gamers who have bought into an empty gaming culture, but that is okay. There are better things you can do with your mad skillz than virtually stimulating their tender amygdala with sensory overload.
  • Focus on alternative feedback systems such as real world rewards or social rewards. You’ll actually be providing substantial, positive benefits to your customers and the smart marketing people will build their campaigns around this concept.
  • Encourage ‘Try before you buy’ distribution methods. The current retail channel encourages and promotes the status quo of both game design and advertising. The best marketing is to provide authentic, high value experiences to your customer and then leverage of word of mouth and other viral or grassroots techniques. When you encourage user trial of your product, you are no longer hiding behind the veil of questionable box shots, previews and magazine ads. Instead, you are establishing an honest, experience-based connection with your customer. The rapidly growing markets of casual gaming and MMO games follow this sales model very successfully.
Many in our close knit industry are always willing to defend the excesses of visceral feedback as art. But I wonder if the situation isn’t the exact opposite. Art to me is the act of creating great and wondrous things that communicate the breadth of the human condition.

When I look at many games and the sorry advertisements that reflect back their pitiful value, I see people mechanically spewing out “more for the sake of more.” A game that only offers perfectly modeled bullet paths or the ability to murder beautiful women is a waste of talent and a blight upon our industry. I say this not because I’m morally opposed to such content, but because it doesn’t accomplish anything worthy for the customer, the industry or our industry’s wonderful developers.

Make something worthwhile. The game ads, though never perfect, will improve in direct response to the value of what you create. Perhaps, many years from now, I’ll be able to flip through EGM with my fiancĂ© and not feel like such a dolt. :-)

Take care

Defender: http://www.vgmuseum.com/scans/scans2/defender.jpg


Ms Pacman


Other old box shots

Tuesday, March 7, 2006

Tyrian Comic

Here is a completely obscure Tyrian comic that I never expected to see.

Gaming subculture is turning into a real culture. We are seeing music, art and stories that take the language and mythos of games and weave them into a broader experience.

Not so long ago, the culture of games was limited to just games. As much as I like the medium, it deals with the shallow end of the human experience pool. Well, the non-gamers are dying off slowly but surely. And the gamers that take their place 'speak' games in the same way previous generations used music and movies as their preferred metaphors when communicating.

Here's a thought. We always wonder when games will make their Citizen Kane. What if it doesn't work like that? What if instead, games gain meaning through the participation and deep personal involvement of their players much like basketball or football. When these two sports were invented, they were a couple of guys acting like fools with odd shaped balls. Over time, the passion of the players and fans spawned movies, books, articles, stories and legends. Due to intense participation and the clouds of secondary artifacts, these sports became a near religious cultural phenomenon.

What if video games are the same? Take something like Mario 50 years from now. Does it still inspire us? Suppose we create in the Mario universe because it is a powerful metaphor for describing the human experience. It is a different, but no less potent path towards cultural significance. Odd thoughts for a Tuesday morning.

(This isn't a long post...just a link to a cool comic. I lost a big chunk of time browsing the Book of Random Bunny site. :-)

take care

Wednesday, March 1, 2006

Notes from FlashForward 2006

Matt and Mike Chapman, the artistes that draw Home Star Runner (and Strong Bad!) are Nintendo DS fans. They had put on a talk at FlashForward in Seattle and the first thing they did was announce that they had started a Pictochat session. While one guy talked, the other guy would doodle away and read messages from folks responding in real-time to their talk. They also showed an early version of their cartoon that they claimed was created in MarioPaint. I have no idea if it is true, but these guys rock. Hero worship should be encouraged in such situations.

Strong Bad

I have mixed feelings about the Flash community at the moment. At FlashForward, all the cool people get together and show off the crazy things and cool techniques they can do in Flash. The game industry has jaded my inner technophile. Pixel operations such as morphing of two images are nifty, but wasn’t that done in the mid 90’s on the desktop and even earlier in the research labs? One fellow showed off some crazy particle effects. They are certainly artistic, but the same basic stuff was being done on the Amiga and C64 in ages past. The demo scene for god sake…how can you forget the demo scene? It’s like someone playing Black and then claiming Criterion invented the FPS…because they never played that last decade worth of games.

Why the Web is cool
But complaining about the fact that Flash people think ancient technology is cool misses the whole point of Flash and web technologies in general. These platforms succeed based on two key points that the game industry might want to take to heart:

  • Reduced barriers to entry for the customer
  • Putting creative power in the hands of non-technical people.
Why make a web application? From the user’s perspective the benefits are huge.

  • You don’t have to worry about a CD that you’ll inevitably lose.
  • You don’t have to worry about putting something on your machine that will screw it up.
  • You don’t have to worry about losing that silly application icon that gets lost in the crazy hierarchy of the Start Menu.
  • You can type an easily remembered URL into your web browser and get to your stuff instantly.
These are all minor items to the technologist, but they are some of the thousand little paper cuts that make many users despise their computer.

From the author’s perspective, the benefits are equally cool.

  • You do not need to be a technical expert. With a simple piece of software and bit of scrounging around the internet, anyone can just start making something. The 99% of the population who can’t code their way out of a paper bag can still make a blog. The 99% of artists who can code can still draw in flash and maybe even hook up a button or two. More passionate people working in a medium = better content. It is a simple thing.
  • For many simple projects, configuration management, updating users about versions, etc, etc are a thing the past. Upload to a central location and your users get the newest stuff. The cost of maintaining content goes way down.
A case in point are the Home Star Runner guys. Earlier in the day, you had the Adobe pitches gushing about the latest wild improvements to Flash 8 and beyond. Matt and Mike have what many attendees consider a dream Flash job. They are self employed, profitable, have their own office and produce kick ass creative content. Guess what they use? Ancient Flash 5, baby.

They use some simple drawing tools and the ability to navigate around. But that’s about it. No fancy pixel manipulation. No crazy XML integration. Just some basic tools and a lot of creative spark.

A pencil is a stick of graphite (but no body cares)
The best creative works are not only about technology. All artists have this pounded into their heads from an early age. A pencil is just a stick of graphite. It is cheap, readily available and easy to publish the results. It may not have the latest Gel Ink 5.0 technobabbloid writing engine. But that’s okay. Art is always about using what you have in a manner that inspires and entertains. The user doesn’t see a thousand flecks of graphite on a pressed sheet of paper fibers. They see a beautiful sketch by Leonardo.

The same goes for the web. The end user doesn’t care that Matt and Mike use Flash 5.0 instead of Flash 8.0. They could care less that the graphics technology behind Flicker or Google is 10 to 20 years old. These experiences are fun, hassle free. They showcase unique creative voices that may never have had a chance to blossom in other forms of media.

Imagine a day when two guys in an apartment working part time can make a world class game that garners more success than most big publisher properties. It has certainly happened in the past. The trends are such that it will happen again.

  • As the middleware industry matures and morphs into artistically friendly tool
  • As the deployment platforms become more standardized,
  • As the language of game design becomes more accessible and broadly taught
  • Production costs will fall and entry barriers to talented creative whackos will decrease.
The exciting part is that the web, as a platform, is in some ways much further along this path than our vaunted consoles or desktop PC games. Pretty cool. The fact that Flash-based casual games are one of the fasted growing segments of the game market is not an accident. Of course, now I wonder where all those AJAX web 2.0 games are lurking and why they aren’t more popular. :-)

Take care