So True…

Saw this, forgot about it, had it pasted to me again a minute ago:

…pretty much all you need to know ;).

Design Without Greed

I noticed a site on my morning Internets wandering, a site which exists at the URL I shall not link for reasons described later.

A site about generating game ideas, a “veteran designer” interested in honing his craft by committing to choosing a random concept and platform each week and designing a game based on what’s drawn. So, cool, I’m sold on the concept. I’m even sold on the execution – using a random quantity to stimulate creativity is a classic brainstorming tool. And constraints (platforms) are the mother of true creativity. As I’m fond of saying, the human brain is an amazing thing, and much of creativity is relating the unrelated. If you pick two random words from the dictionary and force your brain to mull them over, it will find some way to connect them. Even better is to apply random quantities in the context of a well framed problem such as “create a game with three unique goals.” If you push through until you have a list of 30 answers, you’ll find some pretty amazing, creative answers. So, huzzah, sir, great concept for a blog. Unfortunately, the concept is where the huzzahs stop.

I immediately sifted to the bio looking for titles shipped, an inclination I’m not proud of. Unfortunately, this is the only reasonable metric for the success of a game designer at present. What experiences has s/he created? Have I experienced any of them? Did I like them? These are the questions at the most basic level, and they immediately determine the value I’ll ascribe to anyone’s thoughts on game design. It seems a bit brutal, and I found myself feeling guilty – after all, I’ve shipped only Tony Hawk Underground and some casual titles, and I’d still like people to read my blog ;). So, I read his first self imposed design challenge: Film Noir + PSP. BARF! What a sad, sad lack of creativity, and a ponderously misinformed take on game design. Compounding these problems (or perhaps a symptom of them), he has Miner’s Syndrome about his “brilliant” ideas:

You Want to Use a Design?

So, you really like one of the game concepts on this site and would like to make a game out of it? Great! I’d love to see that happening!

These game designs aren’t entirely free, however. I love sharing my ideas with the world, but if you’re going to sell a game based on them and make a ton of money, I think it’s fair for me to get some of that money for my efforts.

If you want to make an actual game based on the ideas on this site, just contact me and I’m sure we’ll be able to work something out — even if it’s for a freeware game. I really don’t want to rip anybody off, but I don’t want to be ripped off either. If nothing else, I’d like to know where my ideas end up being used.

Ah, the easy arrogance of the ignorant. I dare not link to the site, lest his pomp floweth over and infect mine as well. I, too, might end up with an emo-vatar and a perennially furrowed Brow of Brilliance.

This makes me crazy, if only because he’s got the domain I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, ideas are worthless. Of course, that phrase is intentionally incendiary. Obviously, I am hugely invested in and deeply love creativity and the technologies for generating brilliant, revolutionary ideas. Stating that ideas are worthless is a reaction to the notion that ideas are like a mine: an exhaustible resource, a rare commodity. This is, of course, absurd. Ideas are not a commodity. What’s useful isn’t the ideas themselves but the mind who generates them. Given a well framed problem and the proper brainstorming tools, one can easily generate hundreds of amazing ideas. It is, as ever, implementation which holds the key.

As David Jaffee (God of War) said to Harvey Smith (Thief, Deus Ex) after an extended explanation of a game idea about experiencing death at different ages, ‘that’s lovely, Harvey, but how would you make a game out of it? This is the crux of it all, the only context in which a brilliant idea for a game has any meaning. You sit your ass down, you with your crazy ideas about games in which the player plays as a shadow in a 3d world or in which the player plays as natural harmonic resonance, and you make that fucker. You figure out how it would work, what the pieces would be, how they would be constructed, and, most importantly, how the pieces would interact. The dynamics. Then, you build it. Or a part of it. You check those myriad assumptions against harsh, hard-as-a-hammer reality and find out if what you thought would be fun is actually fun. You get someone with no investment – emotional or otherwise – to sit down and play what you’ve made, and you get the most objective read you can on the experience they’re having with your creation. You want to know what would happen if you weren’t in the room? Brace yourself: the player would likely turn the game off in a matter of minutes, or never have started playing at all. The inconvenient truth is that translating a brilliant idea into compelling game is extremely difficult, takes a crazy amount of work, and is the core competency of game design. It’s much important than generating and developing good ideas. Generating and developing good ideas is the fun part, the exciting part. If you want to be a game designer, though, you have to be willing to get your hands dirty.

…and now back to our story. Reading this gentleman’s pages of text about film noir and stealth gameplay and story, I can see that he’s still caught in the idea phase. He thinks that by saying ‘we’ll take some stealth gameplay from Splinter Cell and the structure from Mario 64, sprinkle this Film Noir theme over it and we’ll have an awesome game!’ his jobs as designer is done. It hasn’t even begun yet. Things like lists of locations, art treatment, making up names for characters, these things are not game design. These are the things that freshfaced students in my Gameplay and Game Design class think are game design. The fundamental disconnect comes into delightful relief when I assign the first board game prototype, tasking them with translating their ideas into a functioning, dynamic system. You want to make a game about the evolution of technology on an alien world? Great, how does it work? What are the pieces of your system, how do they interact, and how do they give rise, with players at the helm, to interesting, engaging experiences? It takes most students three to five prototypes to find any kind of answer to these questions.

If you want to be a game designer, you can’t just scribble down some vague notions about story and treatment and expect your peasant workers to scurry about solving your problems for you. Neither can you simply rattle off the names of successful games, standing on their shoulders and assuming that because you’re borrowing from them, the systems will work the same way in the context of your idea. Games are a cohesive whole, where every piece, every tiny variable can mean the difference between Mario and Monster Party.

And, please, design without greed.

I <3 Cory :)

A Shakespearian MMO?

This fascinates me as a design concept…but what a monumental challenge! Clearly, there’s a lot of potential here, but this seems to be a bit of a red flag:

He said one of the more unique elements of “Arden” is that the game will be seeded with Shakespearean texts, many of which will be the most valuable treasure players can find.

“If you collect the ‘To be or not be’ speech and then take it to a lore master or to a skilled bard, he can then apply the magic to your broad sword or you (could) utilize the magic in a battle situation to give you this massive (advantage),” Castronova explained. “So there (will be) this intensive competition to get the best speeches of Shakespeare in your play book.

“You’ve got to know your Shakespeare, but…if you do, collect these texts and you can just playfully kick butt the way wizards do.

He seems to be thinking – granted, at this early stage – of simply shoehorning Shakespeare into World of Warcraft, using it as a powerup. The question they should be asking themselves is ‘what do we want people to learn?’ and, most particularly, ‘how?’ Judging by the statement “We’d like to allow our players to learn something valuable, so that’s why it’s about Shakespeare”, I’d say the underlying goal is, in addition to the ‘social science Petri dish’ concept he’s espousing, to teach random internet people about Shakespeare. So, what do you want to teach them? I’m assuming, because Castronova is a college professor, that he’s interested in teaching Shakespeare in the academic sense, which is to say first and foremost simply understanding what’s happening (parsing Elizabethan English.) From there, appreciating Shakespeare’s genius would be nice, understanding narrative structure and so on. Then, it’s always interesting to understand the context in which Shakespeare’s plays existed, the world they came from, and to examine why they, of all works (being very much the pop culture of 17th century England) have endured centuries of scrutiny and continue to be held in the highest regard today.

I’ve also noticed that my father, who has a Masters in English, seems to, among other things, have sponged up insane amounts of Shakespeare. We’re talking huge sections of the plays which he can recite from memory. I surmise, then, that even if rote memorization isn’t the goal of study per se it is at least a desirable outcome of constant exposure. And, of course, there are well documented cognitive benefits to memorizing long passages.

So, as quantifiable, measurable outcomes for a Shakespearian MMO, I submit the following:

1. The player learns how to overcome the barrier of Elizabethan English.
2. The player learns to peel back the layers, understanding the nuance, subtlety, playfulness, and meaning of the plays – in short, to appreciate the genius of Shakespeare.
3. The player comes to know by heart whole passages from Shakespeare.

With these goals framed, I immediately begin to apply my favorite brainstorming tool for games, role shifting. As described in the article, the player “can expect to trot around in 17th century regalia, buying ale in Elizabethan taverns and joining guilds aimed at toppling dukes and earls.” Presumably, if the player is toppling dukes and earls, he or she is playing as a commoner. So let’s see what else the player could play as, let’s shift roles around. Obviously, the player could play as a character from the play, and would have to then be tasked with correctly playing out their ‘part.’ There are myriad design problems here, but ignore them for now – we’re brainstorming, it’s not time to shift into analytical mode yet. What if instead the player played as the castle walls, the “set” if you will? Then the play would unfold in front of them, digitally replaying over and over again. The ‘walls have eyes’, as it were. To take this a step more towards something game-y, what if the player played as a ‘camera’ and their job was simply to capture the action as it unfolded, moving from location to location and trying to find the best angles to ‘record’ the play from? This has some interesting social implications design-wise, including the possibility of sharing and ranking these recordings in some sort of ancillary content ranking website. What if the players played as spirits, invisible to the autonomous ‘actors’ acting out the play, but were able to move freely in the environment and see one another.

This seems interesting, because it implies, to me anyway, that at some point the players would rank up to be allowed to inhabit the bodies of certain actors in the play for certain amounts of time, and be tasked then with playing them out. Perhaps the other spirits could vote on the accuracy, subtlety, whatever of the performance and this is how the player gains points. If we could, through careful structure and rule creation, create a community where new players were encouraged and nurtured by veteran players, or masters of Shakespeare, I can see this achieving most of our stated goals. Of course, that ‘careful structure and rule creation’ would be the great challenge of this design, and would likely take months of laborious design and testing, to say nothing of the crazy amount of content and technology that would need building before any kind of testing could even take place.

I see a lot of interesting parallels between this and the project we (Flashbang) are currently creating for Cisco, a teaching game for their salespeople. I wish Castronova and his team all the best, and look forward to seeing how this develops. I’d would love to play and learn in a living, breathing, participatory the world of Shakespeare. Mmm-hmm, yes I would!

Mechanics of Intimacy

“Then she crept into my waiting arms, radiant, relaxed, caressing me with her tender, mysterious, impure, indifferent, twilight eyes — for all the world, like the cheapest of cheap cuties. For that is what nymphets imitate — while we moan and die.
‘What’s the katter with misses?’ I muttered (word-control gone) into her hair.”

Ok, so stuff like this has been all over the Webs of Inter of late, and has created a large, if misinformed stir. Some interesting things to glean from this little netscapade, other than the fact that the Internet is becoming increasingly prone to embarrassing misfires (if it draws hits, who cares if it’s accurate!), is that our culture is still painfully backwards when it comes to sex. Even, or perhaps especially, those online.

Retarded (re•tard•ed) adj. – “Occurring or developing later than desired or expected; delayed.”

People. Please, go read Lolita. Is it creepy that Humbert Humbert is having sex with a 12 year old girl? Yes. Is he an empathetic character and is the love he has for Lolita beautiful and haunting? Yes, yes it is. I’d like to think that I live in a country and culture where I can say that without being accused of pederasty. Sadly, this is not the case.

Anyhow, what interests me about this uproar is not so much the response, but the question that, as a game designer, seems to underlie this talk of perviness and games: how would one make a game about sexuality that is not pornographic? A game design challenge, if you will.

Create a smart, sexy game about intimacy.

For whatever reason, and the reasons are many and well-lamented (yay, Robin!), our little industry is completely puerile when it comes to sex. We have big bodice vixens, babes with guns, and cutie-pie anime girls; fantasies for teenage boys. To claim otherwise is intellectual dishonesty. Anyhow, what’s pertinent to our design challenge is the fact that the sex we have in the games we have now isn’t sexy.

For me, sexuality is much more about intimacy and sensuality. Pornography in the traditional sense – ramming it home, as it were – is pretty horrifying. Though (as my girlfriend points out) being ‘ravaged’ has a certain fantasy appeal, one wouldn’t want to make a game where the focus was, ah, thrusty.

So, putting aside the possibility of the game being about actual intercourse, and limiting ourselves to a single player experience (the role of virtual chat rooms with avatars who engage in animated sex being well covered), we’re left making a game about intimacy. What, then, are the mechanics of personal intimacy?

Proximity is a necessity, to be sure. It’s interesting, though, that it is possible to be intimate without actual physical contact. The simple act of moving into another’s personal space immediately heightens physical intimacy. As long the person is not a stranger or unwelcome, simply being close can be intimate.

“For instance, there is a game in which a couple may try to see how close they can get to each other without actually touching. Another game involves running hands along the contours of a person’s body without touching him or her. These techniques often heighten sexual arousal. When a person enters someone else’s personal space for the purpose of being intimate, it is physical intimacy, regardless of the lack of actual physical contact.”

Recently, I went to see “The Departed”, which I enjoyed. There is a sex scene in the film which struck me as very sensual, very sexy, and which included only some kissing and mild undressing. In fact, the scene caused a friend of mine to, involuntarily, yell the phrase “HOLY GUACOMOLE!” out loud in the middle of the theater, to general hilarity. The moment at which the scene pivots from uncertainty to extreme sexiness is a moment of physical intimacy without any touching. Vera Farmiga’s character is sitting on her kitchen counter and Leonardo DiCaprio is face to face with her. Great moment. This is not to say that touching should be omitted from consideration, I’m merely pointing out that the proximity of two people seems to be a prerequisite to intimacy.

Intimacy in The Departed

So that’s a possible direction, I guess, some kind of interpersonal simulator, where you play as a guy or girl trying to become intimate with another person by making advances in the right order or with the right finesse, with interesting control mechanics related to eye contact, body position and language, proximity, and picking up on subtle cues. Sounds pretty boring, though, and similar to the territory Façade and others are aiming for. Also – and this may constitute a significant heresy – I think trying to translate film or literature into interactive form is, as an approach, entirely too complicated. The scene’s success depends almost entirely on context: the attachment to those characters built across an hour of excellent film and the details of this particular encounter (it’s raining and Leo was *apparently* without a jacket, Vera’s moving out of her apartment so the lighting is diffuse and so on…) Even when approached with powerful intelligence and determination – that kind of procedural context generation being dutifully attacked by the Interactive Storytelling Battalion who are bivouacked in what seems to be a relatively strong position – I think our goal of making a sensual game could be much, much simpler.

In fact, my solution to the problem of designing a game about intimacy hinges on simple touch. Before I go there, though, I think it’s also important to note that smell (candles or incense), sight (candles or low lighting), and sound (Barry White or whatever) are also traditionally integral to ‘setting the mood’ for intimacy and sensual enjoyment. We’re not going to get smell, but we can certainly hit sight and sound. I think a great treatment would be something like Peter Miller’s “Eros Ex Math” series:

As noted, “The images in this room are created entirely from mathematical algorithms.” That’s ripe for real time if anything ever was. It also does a fantastic job leveraging the brain’s imaginative capacities, offloading a goodly helping of sexy interpretation to the player’s mind. So, we’ve got our look . For sound, simple breathing.

Now to answer the heroic question posed of Harvey Smith by David Jaffee – that’s all well and good…but how do we make a game of it?

The Touch

One mechanic of sensual pleasure which I’ve always found fascinating is touch. Specifically, extremely light fingertip-to-skin touching. I find, without getting too ribald, that touching a woman’s skin as lightly as possible while varying the speed and pattern of the contact of each fingertip (so that there is no discernable pattern) is extremely effective in providing sensual pleasure. As it turns out, there’s an interesting scientific explanation having to do with the way the somatosensory system interprets input over time – if it’s in a straight line the neurons are able to predict and anticipate the stimulus and are prepared for it. If there’s no pattern, it’s much more exciting and stimulating. This is why it’s difficult – if not impossible – to tickle yourself.

The game is very simple, requiring the player to touch the undulating Miller forms as lightly as possible without breaking contact, uninterrupted, and without a discernable pattern. Shallow breathing in the background quickens in pace to indicate system state, getting faster as you succeed, with an advancing round structure for pacing (complete one round, move on to the next.) As an area is touched, it lights up, a gradient glow expanding from the point of contact. Touching the same area over and over again yields diminishing returns, with variations in surface and movement speed providing additional difficulty.

There are two control implementations that come to mind, one of which requires some non-standard input device configurations. The non-standard configuration would be wearing the P5 Glove (degree of finger curl to indicate the strength of the touch) while moving the mouse with the same hand (to indicate position.)

I’d simulate the skin as a series of spring hulls, each with slightly more stiffness than the last, to create a sort of layer cake effect, and then test to see whether and where each layer was depressed, touching the layer below as a gauge of pressure.

A keyboard and mouse version of this would separate the touching pressure from the pattern of movement. The touch pressure would be a separate, smaller picture-in-picture window where the player would use the mouse to keep the appropriate (light) pressure on the skin, which would scroll right to left to increase difficulty. Meanwhile, the player would have to press keyboard buttons with the other hand to indicate the area to be stimulated. An interesting idea I have here is that of a keyboard ‘mashing’ scheme, where instead of four buttons indicating directions to steer in, the whole left side of the keyboard is active, from the ~ key in the upper left to the B key in the lower right. Any key within this range is a valid press, but to succeed you must press keys out of vertical or horizontal order and, again, hitting the same area while it’s still illuminated produces diminishing returns.

Anyone else have an interesting take on what a ‘smart, sexy game about intimacy’ would be?

Tune Project Update #8

New, simpler UI in place. I definitely dig this direction; the focus is back on editing the parameters to get the feel you want. Also, I’ve started the game out with a nigh-unplayable tuning, forcing the player to do some serious tinkering with the various parameters right off the bat. I’ll add in functionality to show/hide the parameters and sider next.

After that, I want to pursue the structural changes mentioned below, making the game much more freeform and exploratory, as well as adding a bunch of new enemies and environmental objects. My current thinking is that I want to create a leveling system whereby you get experience points for defeating enemies and completing objectives. Experience points will upgrade your various abilities in some way, either by increasing the total tunable range or by simply increasing your health and damage dealt per attack. Additional parameters to tune will still be scattered throughout the level, but the level will sprawl on and on, possibly with entrance and exit points so I can spool in different pieces (if it gets too big.) I have the more recent Castlevania games in mind. We’ll see how it works once I have ‘er up and running ;).


Download Tune 1.3 here!
Play Tune 1.3 in web player here!