Nov 102015

I posted up the slides to my talk at SGC earlier; now the conference has released video of the session.

This talk was a joint keynote for both the Sweden Game Conference, which was a typical industry conference, and the smaller VS-Games conference for serious games academics. So I tried to straddle the line by doing a talk that would be helpful both to indies and interesting to game studies folks.

Questions start right around the 49:00 mark, and in particular there’s a bit of a rant on my part about the value for interdisciplinary learning for people who are going to creatively lead projects. After that answer, Rami Ismail (who was there, of course, he is everywhere) asked if I could list the five most important or relevant books for covering the various fields that I had described in the talk. I couldn’t… so I listed more like 30.


Sep 192015

Slide15I had a great time in Sweden, despite the fact that there did not seem to be a canonical way to pronounce the city was in (Skövde — sort of hghuheffdduh-ish, but depending where I was in the country, it was also hgheffduh, hghuffda, and a few others).

The talk I gave, put together after some rather late nights with boardgames and beer (well, hard cider in my case), was called “Teaching to Fish.” It had to work as a joint keynote for both the Sweden Game Conference, which was a typical industry conference, and the smaller VS-Games conference for serious games academics.

I ended up doing a bit on game grammar, but focusing more on the fact that given the breadth of the field, it is important that practitioners know what sort of thing they are making, and use the right tools for the job. And that they take their field seriously, study the relevant literature from both games and the countless other disciplines that interact with and impinge upon games.

A lot of the audience was students; I was told afterwards multiple times over that I might have scared half of them right out of the course of study. I was asked two questions at the end, and one of them was “so, since learning all that is impossible, what then?” more or less, to which I answered “it’s not impossible, I did it.” That was followed by a question from Rami Ismail basically designed to force me to prove it, asking me to list of some relevant books; so I gave title and author recommendations for each of the fields in the slides — more like twenty than the requested five. :)

Besides Rami, I also got see old friend Lee Sheldon and Mike Sellers, and make many new ones. I learned a lot about the Nordic LARP scene, which is utterly fascinating. Tommy Palm (formerly King, now doing VR) and Ben Cousins and David Goldfarb (now at new studio The Outsiders) were kind enough to host me for meals on the last day as I attempted to sightsee Stockholm on foot. Twelve miles, one blister, and I had managed to walk most of the core of the city in the rain, visiting museums, tourist traps, and sites from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

Slides for the talk are here. It was filmed, and I imagine that at some point I may get a link to that to share it with you. For now, you will have to make do with a parable about fish with a couple of bad puns. Well, one REALLY bad pun, a few middling ones, and one fairly decent one.

Game talkPAXDev Game Grammar talk

 Posted by (Visited 1480 times)  Game talk  Tagged with: , , ,
Sep 092015

At PAXDev I gave a talk on Game Grammar. It’s an overview of my current understanding of how all the parts of games fit together. I don’t touch on how every part works — that would have taken far too long for the time allotted — but I do provide the overview, what I have taken to calling my “map of game.”

For the last few years, the tension between the various different ways of looking critically at games has often run high. With this view of things, I wanted to reconcile things a bit. It draws a bit on the stuff from the essay “Playing with ‘game'” and also from the presentation with the same title, which is actually about something else entirely. It pulls in stuff from Games Are Math and from the deck on Social Mechanics.

It tries to map it all out in terms of how it fits into the classic interaction loop that we’re all familiar with, and discusses the techniques used not only for creating solid game mechanics but also what sorts of rhetorical and artistic techniques work best when you are working towards, say, Tadhg’s Kelly’s notion of “storysense,” or towards putting someone in shoes that are not theirs, as in the efforts that are happening so much in the indie narrative game scene.

This also has a few little examples of how you can use simple game diagrams to look at game designs and assess them for flaws or scope.

It’s dry and full of diagrams. Enjoy!


Game talkOff to PAX

 Posted by (Visited 1288 times)  Game talk  Tagged with: , , ,
Aug 252015


I fly off to Seattle in a few hours, barring rain. It will be my first time ever at PAX, and I am looking forward to seeing what the hubbub is about. I will be carting some of my tabletop games with me, so if you run into me, ask about them and you may get to play one spontaneously.

I will also be talking twice. For those who haven’t noticed, there’s a little events widget on the sidebar now over to the right, listing upcoming speaking gigs. But I’ll try to be good and post about them on the blog too, since I have been neglecting it quite badly lately.

In any case, I’ll be talking at PAX Dev — for which there are apparently still tickets — giving the closing keynote. It’ll be on game grammar: Continue reading »

Game talkGames vs Sports

 Posted by (Visited 2240 times)  Game talk  Tagged with: , ,
Jun 222015

044515-glossy-black-icon-sports-hobbies-medalFrom a game design “formalist” point of view, they are not different. A rules-centric view of games doesn’t care whether the interface is computerized, mediated via apparatus, or physical, so it makes no distinction between computer chess and physical chess; similarly, it makes no distinction between the rules of, say, baseball, implemented within a computer or by players on a field. They’re both still recognizably baseball. You can diagram them; you can port the higher level rules between media; you can implement even a phsyical version with a ruleset that requires everyone to play on their knees, or in wheelchairs.

The major distinction arises with subgames and interfaces present within the rules. For example, baseball-the-sport makes use of extensive implementations of physics, thanks to the real world providing a very robust physics engine. It also has a very rich set of subgames regarding mastering the controls of the human physical body. Computerized baseball is relatively limited on that front, mostly requiring mastery of just your hands as they manipulate the controller.

Sports historically refers to physical games, but of course even many non-sport games have large physical components involving either strength or dexterity. Many children’s games, such as jacks and tiddlywinks immediately come to mind (not that jacks was always a children’s game…).

Continue reading »

Game talkWhen is a Clone

 Posted by (Visited 6325 times)  Game talk  Tagged with: ,
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 »

Game talkInteractive Mountain

 Posted by (Visited 5221 times)  Game talk  Tagged with: ,
Jul 102014

mountaingameEveryone is talking about Mountain.

Mountain is a game where you see a 3d mountain. It can be turned. You can play some notes on the keyboard. The mountain does things on its own. Trees grow, clouds, etc. It “says” things. Stuff falls from the sky. It’s pretty.

There is nothing you can do to affect the mountain, at least not that anyone has discovered.

Now, obviously this is the sort of thing that would get called “not a game.” And in fact, while praising it, some get perilously close to saying exactly that, in academic lingo:

Just to be clear: Mountain is not a text. It shouldn’t be treated as one. Mountain is best understood as an exercise in form — it’s a small, contained work that depicts and explores a mountain as an object.

At Critical Proximity I pointed out that the avant-garde/art/whatever games would have been called “formalist” in any other medium, so I like this observation.

Here’s Brendan Keogh reacting negatively to Mountain:

I thought I would write a piece about how it makes a point of nothing-ness in a really interesting way. In its menu, where it explains the controls, both ‘keys’ and ‘mouse’ are said to do “NOTHING” despite this being clearly false (keys play musical notes and the mouse rotates and tilts the mountain). It seemed like an explicit commentary on videogames and nothingness, and I thought that would be cool.

But I found it so boring.

Continue reading »

Game talkBalancing novices and experts

 Posted by (Visited 4089 times)  Game talk  Tagged with: ,
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 »

Game talkHow I analyze a game

 Posted by (Visited 9074 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 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.