Game talkDishonest opponents

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Jul 082013

Another question from Quora. At issue was whether a game can be successful if it relies on players being honest about what they think. The example given was “what number am I thinking of?” If the player with the secret number lies, then the game can be unwinnable. So the poster wondered if there were any examples of successful games that rely on blind trust.

Original question is here. The poster has since updated it to ask “opponents” rather than “players.” Before the edit, I posted that I was unsure if I understood the question, because of course there are so many examples of games that rely in blind trust in other players:

  • A player in a team sport relies on his teammates’ cognition all the time. As just one example, passes are executed with the faith that the receiver will be where he is supposed to be, as previously practiced.
  • Team sports rely especially on the coach’s cognition, and there’s a good case to be made that many team games are actually coach vs coach, using the players as poorly controlled tokens. The players often cannot perceive the overall strategic situation very well
  • Bridge and many other cooperative games are about building up trust in partner’s capabilities even though they do not share equal access to information.
  • The classic Prisoner’s Dilemma is a game theory example of blind trust.

I could go on. Which led me to conclude that what was being asked was really about whether the opponent is trusted, and specifically as regards the feedback they give to an action in the game. In a game like this, the player makes a move (uses a verb), it feeds into the black box of rules, and the opponent is supposed to be honest about the way in which the game state is updated, and feed back to the player the results of the action.

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Jul 012013

I answered a whole lot of questions on Quora in the last few days, and thought I would share some of them here on the blog over the next little while, since I have been pretty quiet.

The question on this occasion was, what programming languages should an aspiring game designer learn? And the answers tended to be around things like “C++.” But I suggest a different approach to the problem.

Learning new things is hard. Programming calls for a new mindset, if you have never done it before.

Therefore, you should learn whichever one you will stick with. And that means, the one that is easiest for you to learn first. The one that will give you positive feedback quickly.

Don’t jump to C++ because you are “supposed to,” even if you are aiming at working in AAA console. Don’t jump to C# because it’s the current hotness or what Unity uses. Pick the one that you feel like you personally can make progress in.

Any good programmer will learn many languages over the course of their career. Heck, I am not a good programmer, and I have worked with BASIC, C, C++, Python, Lua, modern BASICs like Blitz (three members of that family so far), three homegrown scripting lnaguages, JavaScript, PHP, and Java.

Pick one that is easy and cheap to get started in. It doesn’t need to be powerful, because you don’t know how to use that power yet. Instead, what you want is something that will let you get a picture on screen very quickly. When you are starting out, positive feedback is the hardest thing to come by, because you suck. So you want a language that will make iteration fast and your failures obvious, and your success gratifying to you.

Don’t worry, you may graduate to a language with greater complexity and power. (You may not… designers don’t need to be great programmers. They need to be able to try ideas out).

So high level languages will work best for a beginner. I would try out things like

  • Gamemaker
  • Flash
  • One of the versions of Lua with a simple graphics library. I used to use one for PSP homebrew development that had a simple API like “screen:draw(“picture,jpg”). That is the level of complexity you want.
  • Same goes for one of the versions of python with a graphics libray.
  • One of the many BASIC variants aimed at indie game developers: BlitzMax, DarkBasic, whatever. I am currently using Monkey, a cross-platform language by the maker of Blitz.
  • If you have an iPad, a neat Lua variant is Codea – you can code right on the iPad! I’ve used it for a couple of prototypes. There are similar apps for Python, and other languages.

Remember, your first game is going to be on the order of Hangman, Pong, guess the number, not Uncharted. You want a “toy” language, as the pros will derisively call these., because you want to play around.

A lot of your game development heroes started out with MS BASIC.

Game talkOn personal games

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May 092013

I don’t have any tales of games saving me from depression.

I mean, I did go through a period where I was depressed. I dropped out of high school while living overseas and basically just didn’t go anywhere. I slept for 23 hours straight. I woke up to eat something and read. It was listlessness, pointlessness, it was like a blank. I didn’t feel sad. I felt… absent. Eventually I was dragged to a doctor who basically prescribed sunshine and a lot of vitamins, and a swift kick in the ass.

The terror of reintegrating into life was enormous. I was shaking and trembling as I caught the bus to downtown. Walking onto the campus had me breathless. And the perfunctory disbelief as I tried to explain to the school administrators what had happened was shocking: idle curiosity married to not caring. Their response to my terror was to say “well, just go back. It’ll be hard.” It was. And it comes back, every once in a while, though never as bad.

But games didn’t save me from that.

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Apr 262013

This video by Matthias Worch is superb, an explanation of the communication gap that was exposed so sharply by “A Letter to Leigh.

“Talking to the Player – How Cultural Currents Shape and Level Design” | You Got Red On You.

In short, after seeing this, it feels like I have been arguing very much from a combination of the oral tradition and the digital culture — likely because of my background in online games. And the aesthetics of print culture are pretty much exactly the things I was commenting on seeing.

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Game talkOn choice architectures

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Apr 242013

Yesterday Andrew Vanden Bossche posted a great article called The Tyranny of Choice in response to the formal questions about narrative that were in my post A Letter to Leigh.

In the article, Andrew argues that every system by its very nature is a statement, not a dialogue. After all, if we artificially control the boundaries of the system, then every system imposes a worldview. (This is the same argument made about how the original SimCity espoused liberal politics through its simulation).

There are not some games that subvert player agency, and others that grant it. Rather, all games, by nature of being games, by nature of being systems, inherently restrict player agency in the exact same ways. The difference between the games with this “aesthetic of unplayability” (as Koster calls it) and any other game is nil. Other games are merely better at hiding their true nature.

…I question whether there is a difference at all between this games that subvert and refuse player agency and those that encourage and celebrate it. I wonder whether player agency, as we know it, this quality we assume games just naturally have, is actually an illusion. Koster implies that games are capable of create dialogue with their systems; I believe games can only make statements.

This led to a great little discussion with Andrew and also with Andrew Doull, which I have captured as a Storify post here.

It led me to think a bit about architectures of choice. As Andrew Vanden Bossche put it, “if a ‘fake’ choice is as meaningful as a ‘real’ one, is there a difference?”

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Apr 162013

020780-rounded-glossy-black-icon-symbols-shapes-spinner4-sc36The world is full of systems. Often they exist below the threshold of what we perceive. It’s all a whirling clockwork of near-infinite complexity, from the tiny mysteries of quantum physics to the wonder of a single tree spanning miles, to the vastness of neurons that sit inside our relatively small skulls.

These systems are dynamic. They move, they change. Had we only the right vantage point, we might be able to see how every gear, every electrical impulse, every vibrating superstring, all can be seen as a filigreed marvel of machinery, the insides of a grandfather clock.

Is everything only this? That’s a question for philosophers and the religious. Many of these systems are of an order of complexity that we may be simply unable to comprehend. Our mental capacity is not so great, after all.

So we arrive at heuristics, our good enough rules of thumb, for addressing these complexities. We can understand physics well enough to plant a robot on a distant planet, but we don’t understand physics. We can understand another person well enough to interact with them, but no one ever really knows anyone fully. We can read a novel — a vast profusion and entanglement of signs, story-worlds, mirror neurons, syllabic scansion, mythmaking, and metaphor — and take away some part of understanding, but likely never all.

Our means of coping with these systems is to simplify. We reduce great complexity down to signs. We classify and categorize and collate. We iconify, cartoon, sketch. When we stop to think about it, we know that all these simplifications are lies. But they are lies we use to live our daily lives, and so we carry on.


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Game talkEvery genre is only one game

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Apr 122013

Well, sort of. I really mean “systemic game” and I am really talking only about game systems here.

So let me preface this by saying that this article’s title is hyperbolic exaggeration. It uses the term “game” in my annoyingly formal, reductionist way. But I want to say it anyway, for the sake of the provocation; framing it this way jars some preconceived notions about terms out of my head. (At some point, I’ll do a post here about finding alternate, less loaded terms. But for now, since I want to get this out, I’m running with it.)

If you take as given that a game can be analyzed in terms of its grammatical structure — the verbs, nouns, adjectives that make it up – then it leads to the natural thought that you might get the same structure with minor variations.

  • This is a rose.
  • This is a blue rose.
  • This is a red rose with whitish leaves.
  • This is a thorny rose with a strong aroma.

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet; a rose is a rose is a rose.

And an FPS is an FPS is an FPS.

(Is this reductionist? Absolutely. It discounts all the things that sit on top of the same skeleton and make them radically different player experiences. But bear with me a moment).

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Game talkA Letter to Leigh

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Apr 092013

when people say games need objectives in order to be ‘games’, i wonder why ‘better understanding another human’ isn’t a valid ‘objective’

games need ‘challenges’ and ‘rules’, isn’t ‘empathy’ a challenge, aren’t preconceptions of normativity a ‘rule’

Leigh Alexander writing on Twitter

Dear Leigh,

I have such a complicated emotional response to this. And I think you like getting letters, based on what I see on the Internet.

I would rate better understanding of another human and the challenge of empathy as bare minimum requirements for something reaching for art.

The assumptions underlying this question are the interesting thing. A game of bridge demands great understanding of another human, and great synchrony of thought. A huge number of the games of childhood are designed to teach empathy. We play games all the time in order to get to know people.

But that’s not what you really mean, is it. What you are really talking about is something else entirely.

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Game talkWhy are QTE’s so popular?

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Mar 132013

Ah, the dread quick-time event. We may have to blame Shenmue for its wide adoption, though of course something like Dragon’s Lair used the same mechanic. They’re everywhere. They are one of the simplest game mechanics there is. And I have done my share of bashing on them too.

What is a QTE and why do big AAA tentpole titles love them? Well, the mechanic itself is “press a button within a very short time frame.” An incorrect press or failing to do it within the time limit results in a negative outcome. In other words, it’s basically whack a mole, or that game where you pull your hands away before they get slapped.

This makes it a mechanic almost entirely based on reaction time, naturally timeboxed to a minimal duration. As such, it’s incredibly accessible (one button!) and minimally disruptive to whatever else is going on.

  • Tentpole titles need to be as mass market as they can get, so by having an extremely simple mechanic, they minimize barrier to entry to the game.
  • Heavily narrative games want mechanics that do not break the story flow, and provide as cinematic an experience as possible. The QTE is about as small as a mechanic gets, and requires next to zero conscious thought.

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Mar 122013

dk-paulineThere have been two notable events lately as regards the portrayals of women in videogames.

One is the launch of Anita Sarkeesian‘s video series on Tropes vs Women in Video Games, the first episode of which covers “damsels in distress.” You may recall Sarkeesian as the person who launched a Kickstarter for funds to make this video series, and was promptly attacked in vile ways, up to and including threats of violence. (This would be why comments are disabled on the video, I presume, though that hasn’t stopped the nastiness from returning in a number of comment threads all over the Internet).

The other is the story of game developer Mike Mika, who hacked Donkey Kong for his three-year-old daughter, so that she could play as Pauline instead of Mario. This has resulted in lots of accolades for “best dad ever” all over the Internet.

Pauline is of course a prototypical damsel in distress — as Sarkeesian points out, one of the very first in videogames. From time to time, games have subverted the damsels in distress trope in various ways (in Karateka, the princess seems like a damsel in distress the whole time, but at the end, if you approach her wrong, she kills you; in Metroid, the protagonist famously turns out to have been female the whole time, concealed in battle armor). But by and large, it’s alive and well.

So lots of accolades for Mika, and a lot of vitriol for Sarkeesian. And along the way, a lot of apologia for the damsels in current games. We’ve seen people saying that rescuing women is a male instinct driven by hindbrain biology. We’ve seen the argument that it just costs too much to provide alternate gameplay modes. We’ve seen the case made that games already have a predominantly male market, and that’s why the games are designed the way they are, to maximize revenue — essentially a tautology (and one that ignores early games like Ms. Pac-Man, not to mention the enormous boom in the female audience that came with more casual play). And of course there’s the fact that it is undeniably a classic plot device used in many classics of literature.

My wife Kristen is an as-yet unpublished romance novelist. She’s got one novel out there right now being looked at for full-length publication (e.g., she got past the query and sample chapters). She’s been working on this stuff for years… and I first started paying attention closely back when I did that Love Story Game Design Challenge at GDC back in 2004. And I think there’s a lot we can learn from romance novels — and it doesn’t mean that the plot device has to go away. Continue reading »