More casual game madness. The latest trend is “Hidden Object Games.” I confess, I don’t quite get it. I’ve played a couple hours of Hidden Expedition Titanic, and I’m having trouble finding the appeal. Of course, everything is sequels and branding in the casual space now, so the latest game is Hidden Expedition Everest. It will be interesting to see what modifications they’ve made to improve the game, but the base level appeal is still eluding me. I’ve enjoyed other casual games – Bejeweled 2, for example, or Grimm’s Hatchery – but I’m having a really hard time seeing the underlying appeal of hidden object games. I understand why it should be fun, I guess. There’s some basic neural circuitry devoted to discerning shapes and patterns, especially picking out specific objects from amongst a jumble of objects, but in my mind the granularity feels off for a successful casual game. Especially at the start, it takes a long time to find each object. It makes me feel quite inept and, especially when I’m looking for the wrong thing, as though I’m being tricked. In my mind, a casual game (and just about any game, really) should have very compelling moment to moment game play, a strong presence at the finest granule. In Bejeweled, you sort gems constantly, a constant stream of stimulus. Your opportunity to sort gems never diminishes; you can always sort more gems. With hidden objects, there are always fewer and fewer objects to look for. It’s weird. I don’t get why millions of people are buying these games. I guess I’ll play the new Hidden Expedition: Everest game when it launches and try to figure it out.
Getting there! At GDC 2006, the Harmonix guys gave a short demonstration at the Experimental Gameplay Workshop about the stuff they weren’t able to fit into Guitar Hero. Namely, a cool system for wanking off and jamming with the guitar controller that was empowering and expressive. Tall order, obviously. So I think that systems like this are getting much much closer. It would be really, really cool to play some kind of more precise strumming game on Wii. It looks like this is fairly complicated and that this gentleman has practiced quite a bit to get this modicum of proficiency, but it looks very compelling nonetheless. What would really make this sing (p. i.) is a bit more sophisticated gesture recognition. A full chord strum versus a single pluck versus a pinch harmonic and so on. And then, of course, you’d have to build some crazy interpreter like the Harmonix guys to get the thing to feel fun for people who don’t spend hours learning it. But hey, getting there.
Or, you know, you could have a band where someone played Wiimotes instead of a real guitar. Hmmm a Wiimote shaped guitar case and a roadie to charge my battrez for me? Hmmm…
Belittled. Subserviant. Pathetic. Transparent. Also, conflicted. It makes me think of Ellison’s Invisible Man (though I know there was no intent here.)
If ever there were a game that is diametrically opposed to the rippling muscle scantily clad power fantasy drivel of the retail game industry, this is it. This is an anti-power fantasy in the truest sense. And, hey, it still manages to be misogynistic. Yay.
A couple years ago, we at Flashbang Studios were tracking the casual space very closely. We ultimately decided to depart for greener intellectual, monetary, and creative pastures, but at the time we knew quite a bit. Following a single game is a bit pointless because in the swirling clone-froth of the casual space, the only way to get ahead is to follow and predict the larger trends. A game comes out, like Nanny Mania, and it’s a big hit. This is unexpected; from the publisher’s point of view, if they’ve done their homework they will know that a certain game will be a big hit in the marketplace. This does not mean that said publisher knows what kinds of games to make in the first place, what kinds of games will catch on. No one does, to the hair-pulling consternation of the big players. So they put a ton of games out there and see what sticks. A game comes out, and it’s a big it, and three months later the clone armies crest the rise: the slaughter is on. The water runs red, and tons and tons of knockoff product is sold. The consumers don’t know any better; people who download and buy and love Cake Mania or Mystic Inn have no idea whatsoever that Diner Dash ever existed. And so it goes.
Anyhow, one trend I was tracking is the migration of retail industry-style games into the casual space. This is one of the many ways casual publisher and developers strive to cash in on the Casual Cash Cow. The “casualification” of games, if you will. On game that seemed particularly ripe for exploitation in this manner was The Sims. I mean, the Sims’ audience is already the audience they’re after. It’s a no brainer. So I was unsurprised to see that things like Virtual Villagers had caught on and was going strong. Enter Nanny Mania. Ouch.
I mean, it’s kind of a Diner game, but it takes advantage of the thematic familiarity and humanistic aspects of The Sims. Simply put, though, I find it horrifying. Go play it. If you wanted to make the anti-Gears of War, here’s your template. Something tells me that when the Clone Armies line up for this one, they won’t have that in mind.
It was interesting to me that despite loving every minute of this talk, I left feeling slightly deflated. A pejorative potshot at video games in the middle: “If you only get the BFA, not the MFA, you go home and continue playing video games.” Those of us who design said games sigh collectively. But I suppose I’m in an odd middle ground, as I am an educator of and about video games and their design. Not only that, but about creativity, the kind of creativity Gentleman Sir Ken is espousing. Game design is a profoundly creative enterprise. Designing games was thing I did in school instead of what I was supposed to be doing, the thing which was stigmatized. It was clear that I was pretty smart, but no one had any idea what to do with me because I wouldn’t sit and memorize multiplication tables. I just wanted to make games in Logowriter all day.
The first thing I hit students in my Game Design class with is the concept of looking for the second right answer. And the third and fifth and twelfth. This comes from Roger Von Oech, and is, I would argue, the first step in a long process of unlearning the wheel clamps public education has put on your Porsche of Creativity. When you look for one and only one answer to a problem – as we have been taught from day 0 hour 1 in every classroom – you’ll grab the first answer that pops into your head that seems like it might be serviceable. If instead youlook for twenty different answers to a problem, the simple odds that you’ll come up with something original that has value increase drastically. Plus, once you exhaust the staid, boring, obvious answers to a problem, you’re left only with things wild and wacky. So increase your failure rate. Lose the fear to fail. If you had to find it, you can lose it.
And so it goes. Even in what one would assume would be a profoundly creative field, the lack of creativity is staggering to me. At an art school. Where people are studying video game design. Anyhow, wonderful talk. My kids at least will have their creativity nurtured and supported, possibly at a Montessori school.
Much love to my parents who did their best to keep my brain out of the public school manure.
This weekend I spoke at the CHI 2007 conference on the subject of virtual sensation. Specifically, I was at a workshop called “Supple Interfaces”, which was put together by my friend Katherine and Kia Höök. I had a really wonderful time; I met a ton of rather blindingly brilliant folks who are working on an amazing smorgasbord of interactive ‘supple’ research projects, got to chat with Nicole from Xeodesign, whose work I’ve admired for some time, and had the distinct pleasure of meeting Adrian Chan, who made me reconsider some long-held assumptions about the way people interact with complex systems and with one another through complex systems.
All in all, it was sort of a bizzaro version of GDC for me, as it was held at the San Jose Convention center. I knew exactly which room to go to, where to find refreshments, and where the best and cheapest parking was to be found. A great experience all around!
The slides from my presentation can be found here: