Game talkThoughts on Cow Clicker

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Oct 062010

Earlier today, after watching Ian Bogost’s GDCO talk about Cow Clicker, I tweeted “I don’t think Ian learned the right things from Cow Clicker.” I got a lot of questions about that, so here goes:

Let me start with the fact that Ian is a friend, and we have had plenty of volatile and engaging debates on any number of game-related subjects. Let that fact color everything I proceed to say.

So  I mentioned to him after his talk that he made an artifact that was a subtle and complex critique of a genre, using the genre itself, and got it to 50,000 people plus a bunch of press, who engaged with it on its own terms, and built upon it in creative directions as well as using it as a springboard for their own debate and commentary, even if only via ironic play of the same.

Ian reads this as a failure to some large degree, whereas to me, failure would have been if no one cared.

I read it as tremendous success, and also as validation of the notion that the limitations we see in the games today are not inherent to the social game paradigm (since his game managed to subvert and extend those paradigms through sheer intent). His game is proof positive, to my mind, that the games are not only cow clicking!

I say this even as I agree with elements of his critique. But I think he doesn’t give himself enough credit here. But Ian is a “glass half empty” kind of guy by his own admission, and the project did start out as satire…

I also think that there is a danger in saying, as he did, that he is concerned that people actually play Cow Clicker for entertainment. It is a mistake for a creator, IMHO, to believe that they “own” the “proper” uses/interpretations of their creation once it leaves their hands, and it has a whiff of worrisome elitism. This may perhaps be implicit in its origins as a satire. When I mentioned this point to him, he agreed, but said “But I don’t need to like it.” And that is also equally true.

The talk also had a bunch of stuff in it about audience, and I think that one of the elements there that set me off on that front was the notion that say, the creators of The Suite Life on Disney Channel don’t feel proud of what they do, and I think that is also a pretty dangerous avenue to go down.

That said — All props to Ian for seriously engaging with the topic enough to go as far as he did — it shows a level of intellectual honesty and rigor that few would venture to. I was one of those who said to him “you really should make one of these or seriously engage with them before you level this magnitude of accusation against them” and he took me up on it in spades. So my comment is in no way an attack on him, but rather a continuation of the debate. 🙂 In many ways, what he did was a brave act of game design. Most are content to carp from the sidelines. I just wish he gave his resulting work, and his audience, a bit more credit. 🙂

Game talkGDCOnline day one

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Oct 052010

I am here in Austin for GDC Online, and I haven’t made it to any sessions yet. Efforts continue to pare down my 1 hr 20 minute presentation to something that fits inside of a session slot, but moreover, I am now giving an addition presentation tomorrow, stepping in for John Donham who can’t make it. So if you are at the show, stop by Wednesday for this session:

AAA to Social Games — Making the Leap Speaker/s: Raph Koster (Playdom)
Day / Time / Location: Wednesday 1:30- 2:30 Room 5
Track / Format: Production / Lecture
Description: Developing games for social networks is a dramatic shift from making titles for PCs, consoles, or even the Internet. These new distribution channels have many unique lessons to learn, including fundamental revisions to the development process itself. This session will provide you with a solid basis for revising your strategy as you approach social game development.

My regular talk is on Friday. I also hope to have some liveblogs for you all of sessions I attend if I get the chance.

Game talkOne BIIIiiiillion

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Oct 012010

There are now one billion registered virtual world accounts, according to KZero, with 350m of them gained in the last twelve months.

More telling is the areas in which the growth has come. Around half that billion is in kids’ worlds (ages 10-15), which now boast many worlds over 10m users, including some shockingly large figures like Stardoll at 69m, Girl Sense at 18m, GoSupermodel at 18m, Neopets at 63m, and Club Penguin at 47m.

Universe chart Q3 2010: 10 to 15 year olds | KZERO – Blog.

The 15-25 bracket has the monster Habbo of course, at 175m registered. KZero picks this segment as the one to watch in terms of innovation. Meanwhile, worlds for ages 25+ have not seen nearly the same level of growth, but still have basically doubled in total registrations since Q1 2009.

Game talkDigital game downloads pull ahead of retail

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Sep 202010

NPD released a report today saying that the PC gaming market is now 58% download sales, though only 43% of revenue — mostly because retail prices are higher. Both retail and download sales are dropping though — revenue is down 21% and unit sales down 14% over the last year.

Why? Well,

“The overall decline of PC games when combining sales via both digital downloads and physical retail sales is impacted by the expansion of social-network gaming as well as the continued expansion of free game options.” NPD analyst Anita Frazier said…

Digital game downloads beat retail store sales | Gaming and Culture – CNET News

Interestingly, the top five digital retailers for AAA show the power of using connectivity in a strong fashion: Steam’s on top of the list, and they by default install a startup-launching login widget; two of the top five are Blizzard and; and the other top five entries are and (The list of casual downloadable leaders is quite different).

Retail has been pushing used game sales for quite a while in order to drive revenue, of course, which by and large game publishers have not liked much (supposedly last year John Riccitello of EA compared used game sales to piracy). It wasn’t very long ago that Best Buy announced they were moving over to that model.

The downside to this may be that used game sales may start running into legal issues, if the battle around shrinkwrap licenses and first-sale doctrine for software continues the path of the recent 9th Circuit Court decision — basically, it said that software publishers can indeed say that you don’t own software, but instead just license it; and therefore can block you from resale.

All in all, the shift to a fully digital future is well underway, and I would expect retail revenues to keep declining. Some are happy about it, such as this guy:

And why not? Digital music can be played on any device. Electronic books can go anywhere the user goes. And streaming movies on demand is far more convenient than mailing discs back and forth.

“The end of software ownership–and why to smile”, CNet

Others will be less sanguine about the idea that their investments can be remotely deactivated, have curtailed legal (and illegal) uses, or simply obsolesce out of being usable when the licensing authority shuts down its servers.

Game talkYehuda Berlinger’s 2010 board game gift guide

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Sep 142010

Yehuda has posted a holiday board game gift guide, and it covers games new and old. I can personally vouch for 75% of the list as great picks, and it is giving me a great list of some extras to hunt down. On the list besides lots of true classics are games like Blokus, Ingenious, For Sale, Set, No Thanks!, Ticket to Ride, Wits and Wagers, and his own It’s Alive.

Some recent acquisitions of my own include Dixit and Dao, but I haven’t really gotten to play either one yet. My son has been enjoying Reiner Knizia’s Money (iTunes link) and High Society (iTunes link) on the iPad a lot.

Game talkHappy birthday, Super Mario Bros.

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Sep 132010

Super Mario Bros. is 25. Of course, lots of folks no longer remember its antecedent, just called Mario Bros., which wasn’t in the model of a “platformer” at all, though it did include platforms. 🙂

Prior to SMB, there were plenty of platformers, but they had different modalities of play:

  • In the original Donkey Kong, the challenge was “get to the other side” — where the side was the top.
  • In ones like Miner 2049er it was all about “painting the map” (literally, in that game’s case — you changed the color of the platforms you walked on), akin to Pac-Man in that sense.
  • In others, it was about collecting objects, such as in Lode Runner (itself derived from Apple Panic) or Jumpman. This is a very different challenge from the one of hitting every spot.
  • And Kangaroo is where I first saw a traditional platformer that included the notion of attacking opponents directly (DK had the hammer, but that was more in the nature of a power-up; Mario Bros. had fighting turtles in essentially the SMB mode, but that was the core gameplay activity, rather than platforming. Almost like a co-op version of Super Smash Bros. actually).

For me, a big part of the genius of SMB has always been the way in which it adopted all these variants and modified them into what has become the template for all platforming since. The sense of completeness that the “visit every spot” games encouraged became the secrets you could find. The fighting was seamlessly woven into the overall “get to the other side.” The sense of environmental modifiability of Lode Runner is present via breaking blocks. Collecting specific objects within the map became an ancillary mechanic rather than mandatory.

Perhaps most importantly, the seeds of narrative that were present and so surprising in Donkey Kong reached full flower — it was here that what we think of as the classic Nintendo universe was really born. It is easy to forget that the rather slight story in DK was a bit of a revolution at the time, when what passed for narrative was the insertion of “cutscenes” about Ms Pac-Man’s relationship in between levels — or more often,  just text on the side of an arcade cabinet.

In essence, by taking all these elements, not in a literal sense, but in a functional, mechanical sense, SMB became the prototype for a “feature-complete” platform game. In a lot of ways, the games have not changed since. The addition of a third dimension didn’t change the core mechanics much, and embedding games such as occasional racing or dodge’em elements is clearly additive.

In a sense, this is a birthday for not only Super Mario Bros., but for all the platformers since, which owe it a huge design debt.

Game talkGames victim of bad CNN headline

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Sep 022010

There it was on the front page of CNN today: “Games delay, then speed dementia?

Only, of course, you click through to the article, and the headline is different: Brain exercises delay, speed up dementia?.

What sort of brain exercises? Well, everything:

Activities that counted toward being “cognitively active” included going to a museum, watching television, listening to radio, reading newspapers, reading magazines, reading books, and playing games.


This stuff does matter — plenty of people will read just the headline, and move on. Why doesn’t it say “going to museums delays then speeds up dementia”?

Game talkGDC Online track keynote

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Aug 312010

Gamasutra has an article up about more GDC Online talks, and mentions in there that I am giving the design track keynote.

Classic Social Mechanics: The Engines Behind Everything Multiplayer Speaker/s: Raph Koster (Playdom)
Day / Time / Location: TBD
Track / Summit: Design
Description: Games have been multiplayer throughout history and have always been fundamentally social. Today were seeing an explosion in games driven by new ways of interacting with people online. Many lessons are available to us from both anthropology and the history of games that demonstrate that sometimes, social mechanics are just old wine in new bottles. In this lecture well cut through the terminology and look at the underlying mechanics and principles that drive sociable gameplay in everything from Facebook games to sports.

I’m looking forward to this one. 🙂 Different but similar to the math one from last year, I hope. It’s been (gasp) seven years since I did my talk on social networking theory, and a lot has evolved since then.

I should also mention that John Donham, who I’ve been working with for years now at Metaplace and now Playdom, is giving a talk on moving from AAA game development to social games — a sort of “top ten bad assumptions” overview, that is looking really good (I get to peek over his shoulder as he preps…)

Early reg discounts end tomorrow! So go sign up for 40% off if you haven’t already!