Aug 122014
 

The tl;dr version is “go here for the talk.”

This past week I was in London, attending Wikimania 2014. Many thanks to Ed Saperia and the organizers for inviting me to speak, it was a highly illuminating experience.

I gave a talk about seeing the Wikipedia experience itself as a series of games: the game of being a reader, the game of editing (or attempting to edit) the content within, and the game of active participation in the community, in terms of working with its policies, its infrastructure, and so on.

Along the way, my intent was to basically toss a few hand grenades in the general vicinity of the foundations of Wikipedia, and in fact of the larger Wikimedia project. This is one of the most idealistic projects in all of human history, and a group of highly intelligent and altruistic people who are fortunately very open to self-examination. So I felt that maybe questioning some of the fundamental assumptions about how they saw themselves and their project was something healthy, and maybe something that would be extra-helpful if done by an outsider.

To make it extra fun, I tried to make the slides look like they were from an old print book.

You can find the slides as a slideshow or as a PDF, and even video of the talk, all here on this new page I have created. I also participated in a panel with a bunch of wonderful folks, on the broader topic of virtual communities. That video is also posted there.

I left the conference thinking a lot about complex systems thanks to lengthy chats with Yaneer Bar-Yam, and toying with the idea of reframing my various definitions of play and games as just “dealing with complexity.” About which more later, I am sure, as it continues to percolate.

Game talkWhen is a Clone

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Jul 232014
 

Just some relatively incoherent notes here, originally written in an email… this post may serve as useful background as it expresses many of the same thoughts in a more coherent form. This was written in part in response to all the discussion around cloning going on in the game industry these days. As it happens, today I read this Gamasutra blog post:

Everything that can be invented has been invented.

- Svyatoslav Torick

Which prompted me to post this here.

“Game” here used in a strict formal sense, to save me from typing “ludic artifact” over and over again.

taflMost games can be described as rules (e.g., processes that are largely based on conditionals, limits, and actions) and sets of numeric values (number of an asset type, values for things, etc). You also have a variety of metaphors and presentation elements that are used to convey these: visuals, sounds, etc.

In general, if we see a game that has all the same rules and all the same scalars, but uses different presentation, we can consider that “a reskin.” It is exactly the same as a Lord of the Rings chess set or the like.

Continue reading »

Mar 242014
 

The debates about “what is a game” happened between multiple overlapping circles that have very little to do with one another… “Games” is never going to fall into one bucket or critical lens… We enrich ourselves and our mutual understanding not by claiming pre-eminence of one circle, but by learning to move between them.

On the Sunday before GDC, I attended and spoke at Critical Proximity, a games criticism conference. It was quite excellent. I am left with many thoughts, which will have to go into a separate post on the subject. In the meantime, there are write-ups available in several places:

As regular readers know, I have been involved in a lot of discussions about “formalism” in games over the last few years. This talk was an attempt to reset the conversation with insights into “formalism in the real world” as Brendan Keogh put it on Twitter, a look into the ways in which looking at the formal structure of games is able to help out and illuminate all sorts of games criticism. Including “softer” or more humanistic approaches, such as historiography, study of play, and cultural studies approaches.To that end, I deployed a set of analogies from other media: fine art, and poetry, and music, to help draw connections between the ways formal approaches and even notation are used in these other fields, and how we might use them in ours.

My talk is below the fold (hover over the slides for the notes text), and for the full transcript plus a link to the video, go here.

There were many other talks I highly recommend… the entire Twitch stream is available (see that same link) and lasts 8 hours!

Continue reading »

Game talkBalancing novices and experts

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Feb 062014
 

ninjasquirrelOnce again, another question that came in via Quora. The issue at hand is, what do you do to balance experts and novices in a game? Especially if there are persistent elements like leaderboards in the design, which tend to cement experts towards the top?

This is a big issue as games become more persistent and emphasize multiplayer aspects more heavily. Single-player games now swim in a soup of constantly connected profiles with all sorts of achievement and expertise data, effectively rendering them all multiplayer via the addition of a metagame. And we should not forget: the average player is below average; or to be more precise, the median player will have a win-loss record that is lower than the mean or average win-loss record, because the high-skill players win a disproportionate percentage of the match-ups. This results in the mode for the win-loss record curve being “loss.” (For more on how Pareto curves manifest in this sort of persistent environment, I refer you to my 2003 talk on “Small Worlds” [PDF]).

This sort of accumulated record of expertise can serve as a huge disincentive to participate. Novices will look at high ratings and consider the game hopeless. Nobody likes feeling inadequate. And of course, once in an actual game session in any sort of competitive scenario, it is rare for the match to actually be between perfectly matched opponents. It doesn’t even take a significant skill gap for an accumulated win-loss record between a novice and a ninja squirrel to begin to look pretty dismal. And of course, in skill-based systems that lack infrastructure, people can try to hide their ratings — that’s the basis behind being a pool shark.

There is no way known to solve this issue. In fact, balancing arbitrary teams, for example, is an NP-Hard problem. Fortunately, there’s a pretty standard grab-bag of tricks to ameliorate the issue: Continue reading »

Feb 052014
 

Slide14My GDCNext talk “Playing with ‘Game'” has been posted up here as video with slides:

Gamasutra – Video: Playing with ‘game’ – What games can be, and what they can mean.

I described the talk thus a while back:

The talk starts out with some basic semiotic theory — basically, the difference between a thing, the name we give a thing, and what the thing actually means. This serves as an entry point into talking about not only the way the word “game” is incredibly overloaded with different people’s interpretations, but also as a way to start discussing the way games themselves can mean things.

This leads to exploring the notion of “play” as space — free movement within a system, which is not a new idea at all, ranging from Derrida to Salen & Zimmerman. And then to looking at the two big sorts of play I see: the play of the possibility space of a set of rules, and the possibility space of a set of symbols or signs, which we might be more used to calling the thematic depth of a literary work. Along the way I break down writing techniques, game design techniques, and more, trying to find the ways in which these tools can be applied to games of different intents — which tools work best for a given craftsperson’s purpose?

For me, a lot of the reason I did the talk was to try to bring together the parties separated by contention over “what is a game” and similar debates. I wanted to show that there’s a lot more commonalities there than not, but also that different creators have different goals for their work, and therefore pick up different tools from the workbench. And that, actually, sometimes this means that games we’d never link together actually have structural commonalities just because the techniques that the creators choose to use.

I actually think I ended up spending too much time on the first half, which is effectively “game critic inside baseball” for quite a lot of people (though might be interesting nonetheless). The result was that I kind of rushed the second half, the part with the tools and techniques. Ah well. I am told it was an interesting talk anyway, just not one of my best.

Enjoy!

Game talkGamemakingA vision exercise

 Posted by (Visited 2968 times)  Game talk, Gamemaking  Tagged with:
Jan 152014
 
…the real work is the film, and the tasks that go into the completed film are all parts of the process. To put it bluntly, as long as the film is made, it doesn’t matter what method was used…
- Hayao Miyazaki

A lot of times, we don’t quite know what the game we are actually making is. It doesn’t matter whether we’re working by ourselves or with a team… the problem can still arise. Maybe we have a collection of features we think we want. Or we have requirements from managers or money people. We perhaps have an IP license in the mix. We have a target market. We have a deep burning desire to express something, something personal or something aesthetic or something lofty.

For me, formalizing tools like this is like tying string around a finger. It’s to help me remember.

A lot of time is often lost to working madly on pieces of all this, without knowing what the core points of what we are making actually are. If you have all the time in the world, this can be just fine — after a while, you start cutting back things you put in originally, as the heart of what you are making becomes clearer.

In my experience, teams that can articulate the soul of the game are more likely to be successful than those who aren’t; and teams that have not yet jelled or that are new to gamemaking are the ones least likely to know their game’s soul.

Continue reading »

Game talkHow I analyze a game

 Posted by (Visited 5914 times)  Game talk  Tagged with: , ,
Jan 062014
 

The first thing I do is set aside my experience. It is only mildly useful, a single data point, when everyone’s experience is subjective. Oh, I’d like to think it is in some ways more valuable than that of a typical player. After all, I have a very specific set of experiences to bring to bear. But in practice, it probably makes my subjective experience well-informed, but therefore less than helpful.

Looking at the experience is like seeing the top of a mountain without knowing about tectonic plates.

Looking at the experience is like seeing the top of a mountain without knowing about tectonic plates. I use that analogy because the typical analogy is that of seeing only the tip of an iceberg. But an iceberg is substantially similar above and below the ground. Sure, there is a lot hidden under the waterline, but it’s not different in nature. When we look around the world, Continental-continental_convergence_Fig21contcontwhat we see, what we experience, is powerfully shaped by things that we do not see. Without understanding fault lines, volcanic activity, and all the rest, we won’t come to understand why a chain of mountains is where it is, and why it takes one form versus another.

That’s why I start with the stuff “under” the experience. Mechanics, inputs and processes, rules and tokens and actions. I strip away the surface until Gone Home is a game about flipping over cards on a desk to see what is underneath them. Papers, Please is a Spot-The-Difference game. The Stanley Parable is a choose-your-own-adventure where some of the options are written in invisible ink. Continue reading »

Nov 222013
 

Here is the full video of my talk at EVA13, entitled “El mundo de sistemas” (the world of systems). It’s in Spanish, and it’s an hour and a half long!

Sorry, no translated subtitles or anything. The talk starts out talking about systems and games, how there are many sorts of games but that a large proportion of them have what I call ludic systems underlying them. I talked a little bit about what some of the implications of systems are, how we learn from them and what sort of lessons they teach. And, of course, also how flaws in systems (or even emergent properties) can cause systems to really run amok, or enable players to really break everything.

That then leads to some anecdotes and postmortem thoughts from Ultima Online and Star Wars Galaxies. Most of these are probably ones that many of you have heard about before:

Continue reading »

Nov 062013
 

Slide20Here are the slides for the talk I gave yesterday, entitled “Playing with ‘Game.'”

The talk starts out with some basic semiotic theory — basically, the difference between a thing, the name we give a thing, and what the thing actually means. This serves as an entry point into talking about not only the way the word “game” is incredibly overloaded with different people’s interpretations, but also as a way to start discussing the way games themselves can mean things.

Slide14This leads to exploring the notion of “play” as space — free movement within a system, which is not a new idea at all, ranging from Derrida to Salen & Zimmerman. And then to looking at the two big sorts of play I see: the play of the possibility space of a set of rules, and the possibility space of a set of symbols or signs, which we might be more used to calling the thematic depth of a literary work. Along the way I break down writing techniques, game design techniques, and more, trying to find the ways in which these tools can be applied to games of different intents — which tools work best for a given craftsperson’s purpose?

I was really stuck on this talk. I had it conceptually all worked out, and could ot figure out a good way to convey it at all. My first several drafts were dry and jargony and a mess. And then I saw Daniel Benmergui give a talk at EVA in Argentina about the difference between “sense” and “meaning,” using David Lynch and Braid as examples, and it unlocked everything for me.

So if you want to know why I think a six-word story is like Journey and how Howling Dogs is like Super Mario Brothers, this is the talk for you. And if the above sounds incredibly intimidating and way too much like grad school in literary theory, the good news is that the talk is full of waffles.

Slide107

Nov 052013
 

Here are the slides for my talk at EVA ’13 in Buenos Aires, Argentina, last week. They are in Spanish, of course.

If I had to summarize the talk, I would say that it covered a lot of the same sort of ground I have touched on before in terms of the ways in which games teach systems thinking. I open with some discussion of the wide range of stuff that we call “games” — something that is also discussed in the GDCNext talk I am posting shortly. I talk about what a ludic structure looks like (something that folks who read the blog will probably find familiar), and the way in which ludic structures arise naturally in the world, and thereby are playable even though they are not designed games.

And then I move into anecdotes on exploits and loopholes and other ways in which we didn’t grasp everything about the systems we ourselves had designed, in games such as Ultima Online and Star Wars Galaxies. The talk ends on speculation on what we’re doing to the world, as we create systems that break outside of games. Are we the most qualified to do this? We might be.

It likely loses a lot without the actual speech, compared to most of my slideshows, but hopefully the video will go up at some point. In the meantime, the PDF is here.