A Lot Can Change In A Year

The last year has been a whirlwind, that’s for sure. Here’s a brief recap of events:

And I’m learning more about myself as a developer. Here are some interesting bits:



Illusion in Roulette

Risk & Reward

Colin Northway posted a fascinating article on his blog recently suggesting that Apple is allowing gambling in the App Store now. There’s some good discussion going on in the comments, which currently ends:

“As a game designer I have come to realize that all games are an illusion played within the perception of the player’s mind.”

“I’m with you on the Roulette. How is Starcraft an illusion though?”

How Starcraft Is and Is Not an Illusion

That’s easy if you take a notgames mindset. The game part of Starcraft is the illusion and the videogame part of Starcraft is not an illusion.

Chris Deleon articulates it well in this excerpt from Games are artificial. Videogames are not. Games have rules. Videogames do not.

Rules need to be communicated, understood, paid attention to, and enforced to exist. This is because they are artificial.

If something which we’re tempted to call a rule does not need to be communicated, understood, paid attention to, or enforced to have full effect, it is not a rule. It is actual.

Lusory Illusion in Roulette

It’d be interesting to apply this notgames mindset to roulette as a simpler example first, so here’s an attempt.

Roulette is a mixture of a non-material game structure expressed through a material medium. The medium you might call token-based roleplaying, which when combined with the structure of a game might become something called a boardgame. The more non-material part of roulette would be its constituative rules, which might be summarized as a number guessing game of chance played in rounds like so:

The more simply you can play the game in this form, the more of a lusory illusion it is. In other words, it requires a lot of the energy you use when accepting that you’re playing a game.

But there’s another kind of illusion present here. This is a game of pure chance, so to get any points in the game, you just play the odds. Technically, choosing a particular subset is completely arbitrary. The quantity of choices you can make as a player depends on the number of subsets. But, mathematically speaking, the quality of choices over time is zero. Well that’s not very interesting!

Therefore, a good game designer would make the choices seem to have more quality than that. The designer might try to create what I’m referring to, for lack of a better term, as semiotic illusion. An illusion of meaning. The subsets should then be divided into interesting groups. Even numbers, odd numbers, specific sequences, and so on. But in the world of the artificial, there’s not a whole lot to work with. That’s why you need to head to the real world…

Lusory Non-Illusion in Roulette

The real world is where roulette is actually played. As a boardgame, it defines a play space, adds tokens, and adds the element of roleplaying. The play space is a table players can crowd around with a zone for each subset, the points become physical chips you can touch with your hands, and a real person takes on the role of the dealer. The subsets can be divided visually with colors, divided based on the roles like the subsets dedicated to the bank, and into other ways that are culturally meaningful.

One of the most interesting things about roulette as a boardgame is how the random number is chosen. The set of numbers is distributed into slotted pockets along a physical roulette wheel. The wheel is spun, and a ball is dropped down into it, randomly falling into one of the slots that corresponds with an integer of the set. This adds a whole new level of almost theatrical drama and suspense around the choosing of a random number, because you can stretch the choice out to an event several seconds long, and all observers get to see the random selection happening in front of their eyes.

Choosing a random number has now become something very real. People accept the physics of the ball dropping, and the wheel is spun fast enough that the result truly seems random. You as a player are satisfied with the fairness of the result because you were able to see exactly how it was chosen. The number was chosen because the ball clearly fell into a particular slot.

The roulette wheel is an essential component to making roulette interesting, because when considering its constituative rules, the game revolves mostly around the simple choosing of a random number. So why not make that random choice more complex and real?

Semiotic Illusion in Roulette

The fact that Roulette is a game about making player choice seem meaningful, when really its not at all, makes it a natural fit for the realm of gambling. Gambling could be thought of as an extremely conservative entertainment business. Points are substituted for real dollars, and games of pure chance are favored. Instead of odds that are even to the cash payout, the odds are less than the cash payout. Given enough time, you are guaranteed to lose all your money. This is referred to as the house edge, which as Colin says is just over 5 cents per dollar as regulated by the government.

Notice my usage of the qualifier “given enough time.” That is precisely one of the disturbing allures of gambling. Roulette as a gambling game essentially allows you to bet on your own destiny. Given enough time, you will lose your money, but will you lose it this time? Maybe you will make some money, simply by playing this game and beating the odds. That underdog chance, that chance to be a Cinderella story, is very enticing to many people. It is a real-world illusion that piggybacks off of the lusory illusion of the game in order to become much more powerful.

But things get even more interesting. Why not combine the allure of betting on your own destiny and the meaning of interesting sets of numbers together to make the illusion even greater? So you divide your set into different-sized subsets so that some bets have higher odds than others. Now players can choose their own level of risk when it comes to betting on their own destiny! Will you play it safe or will you go all in? The choice is yours, and now a little more meaningful because you can choose your path (to zero, usually).

By now the illusion is so powerful that governments have to get involved, so a limit is set (and enforced) on how high the amount of money is that casinos are guaranteed to make over time.

Semiotic Non-Illusion in Roulette

Not everything related to the meaning in Roulette is an illusion. As was stated above, trading out points for your own money makes winning and losing very real. We’ve gone beyond a lusory game experience. The reality of losing money needs to be enforced somehow. That brings us back to the medium, in this case boardgames. The role of the dealer helps to enforce this reality. As the authority of the game, you’ll find the dealer will be respectably dressed, and acts with authority as well, fearlessly taking chips from losers. Sadly, this is not good enough. What if you don’t want to stop playing? What if you decide to jump the dealer the take some chips to keep playing?

The casino needs security. These are the real enforcers of reality. Are you not playing by the rules? You get thrown out. Trying to cheat the system? You get thrown out. Maybe things are getting even more out of hand…time to call the police. High stakes based on real money means things can get pretty serious. Lives can be lost over it – and they have. And now the non-illusion aspect of the boardgames medium becomes perverted.

Videogames Are Not an Illusion

There’s an interesting parallel here with videogames. Like the casino security, videogames enforce a reality. In that way, Chris is right to say that videogames are not artificial. Before diving into Starcraft, let’s consider how that plays out with roulette’s closer neighbor, Slotomania.

Slotomania is close to a real slot machine because of videogames’ ability to enforce a reality. Like many other traditional videogames, it has some set of valued content, and that content is hidden from you the player unless you can successfully perform challenges. In this case, there is no real performance, it’s just a matter of chance. But in the tradition of gambling games, that chance is skewed toward the house, so over time you are guaranteed to be prevented from seeing the rest of the content…unless you pay more money that is.

So despite the fact that the credits are virtual, they do have real world value, they just can’t be exchanged back into money. But people love it anyway, maybe due to the fun of retaining a superstition of odds.

Like in a casino, after losing you have very little power in arguing with the house, which in this case is your computer. If the code says you can’t play, you simply can’t play. Trying to bypass this security makes similar sense as trying to bypass the security of a casino. Not that it stops some people in both cases.

There are other ways that videogames are not an illusion; Starcraft will act as a great example of that, covered in the next post. (It wasn’t covered in the next post, sorry)



Bret Victor is About to Change Game Design Forever

Last year I stumbled upon Bret Victor’s website. In short, he’s one of those genius guys who did some of the real work at Apple making touch interfaces awesome. That’s not a very fair way to describe him, but I’m just trying to get your attention. I read this great article of his about new ways to think about math concepts, and then proceeded to go down the rabbit hole of wandering around on his website. I came across a mind-blowing e-book about information visualization called Magic Ink, and in November, one called Ladder of Abstraction, which was even more compelling to me.

I can say with complete confidence that it will soon change game design forever. Ladder of Abstraction is a revelation for games and videogames as media. In his article, Victor offers both a design process and a set of tools for understanding complex systems. I see it as a key piece of the puzzle in unlocking the “black box” of game design.

If you’re a game designer, and you were just taking a drink of something, this is the point where you spit it out all over the screen. Yes, I’m talking about the first step toward the end of trial-and-error design. In fact, I have not mentioned much about this publicly because my intention was to hide in a cave, apply the concept to a game tool, and then unveil it to the public like a hero (giving credit where due of course). A dumb idea, but once you understand the vision and its implications when taken a couple steps further, you’d be tempted, too.

You certainly need to read the article, but I’ll summarize/butcher. The concept presents a case for ways to view complex systems on different layers, i.e. rungs of a ladder, and then travel “up and down” the rungs to understand the system better. His example was an algorithm of a car following a road. Using interactive examples, he shows how those layers can represent time and space, and even shows how it can be helpful to view those dimensions with multiple instances of the car across time instead of a just at one point in time. Or even better, across the variable of the algorithm, such as how sharp the car turns back onto the road. He argues that going between these layers of abstraction gives you a much better understanding of the implications of the limited, yet still complex algorithm you’re creating. Playing with the examples, you can see for yourself how he’s absolutely right (below is an image; go to his website to play!).

After I recovered from reading the article, I immediately started applying this to more traditional videogame experiences in my head. Suddenly you could view all the possible instances of a platform jump by changing different physics settings to let you know if your platform is placed correctly. Or maybe the inverse, move the platform around and see at which position it can be jumped on. Why not just design your platformer level on-the-fly without even needing to play the game?

Well guess what. A few days ago a talk by Bret Victor was posted on vimeo, showing exactly that! He shows some live-coding examples that are not totally new but very well executed, and then the atomic bomb that is an example of the Ladder of Abstraction applied to a platformer, using art from David Hellman. These demos are of course wrapped in a brilliant, poignant talk in its own right. Maybe I’m still high from watching it, but I’d explain the talk as a whole as one that a TED talk merely aspires to.

My “principle” has me taking the Ladder of Abstraction concept a couple steps further to better understand meaningful gameplay, and I’ll be certainly doing whatever I can to make that happen. I just hope I don’t have to make my own awesome live-coding tool like that and can build off of his instead.



Steven Soderbergh Searching For the Next Phase

Steven Soderbergh Searching For a New Medium

I recently came across an interview with film director Steven Soderbergh. He seemed a little restless searching for new ways to do narrative. It inspired a response that I’m cross-posting here. Here’s an excerpt from him:

“I’m trying to see if I can work around the tyranny of narrative. Not that I don’t want to tell a story. I just wish there was a different way to tell it. I feel like we haven’t pushed this thing, this form into its next phase yet.

I think that’s why working in another medium for a while will help.”

Gee, what other medium could there be? What new medium is exploding in popularity and capturing the hearts of a new generation? What new medium is exploding with creativity and exploring narrative in new ways? One that is free from the tyranny of linearity and author-imposed messages. One that is begging for auteurs to free it from incestuous design structures.

Mr. Soderbergh, you don’t need to take a step backward (he mentions getting into theatre), you need to take a step forward.

There is most definitely a next phase. It involves breaking out of linearity toward something that involves the viewer directly.

This medium is videogames, and its Citizen Kane is anxiously awaited. In fact, it might already be here, coming out in a few days:

You might call it an interactive ghost story. Ironic, considering Citizen Kane was something of a ghost story itself.



New Website for Meaningful Gameplay, First Game Jam

I just launched a new website dedicated to creating meaningful gameplay: www.meaningfulgameplay.com. Other developers in the community seem to be interested in the idea, so I figured it deserved it’s own site. The goal is to create a resource for other game designers by developing prototypes that explore this topic and then analyze them and share that analysis.

The first post is to promote the first game jam for it. I mentioned the idea with my other Iowa Game-Dev Friendship buddies and people seemed pretty open to the idea. So our next game jam, scheduled for August 12-14, will be dedicated to meaningful gameplay. It will be held at BitMethod in Des Moines, Iowa, USA, and online at the Meaningful Gameplay website. Will Canada has a post about the game jam on his site, too.

At the end of the jam, we’ll be submitting our prototypes and analyses to the website to begin creating a resource for the benefit of the game development community.

Meaningful Gameplay Game Jam 1 Poster



A Meaningful Gameplay Game Jam

In the last post I was wondering where the sense of urgency was for creating meaningful games. It even sparked some interesting discussion on whether or not one should reduce the solution to a formula. I don’t think we’re in a race, but I think there seems to be a disconnect between the number of people willing to play/calling for games that are more deeply meaningful and the number of people doing something about it.

Brandon Boyer GDC 2011 #1

A Definition

Several developers have asked “What does a meaningful game even mean?” This is a very fair question. Here is my own attempt at a definition of “meaningful game.”

Meaningful game: a game that has significance or provides purpose for how one lives life.

Games that are meaningful try to reach outside of themselves. They are about more then their own consumption. Maybe they give players deeper empathy, or sympathy, or comfort, or inspire an action outside of the game world. They are meant to transform, even if it’s just a little bit. A game that’s “only fun” might be nostalgic by referring to past 8-bit games, while a “meaningful game” might be nostalgic by referring to a child-parent relationship.

Earlier I linked to a video of Brandon Boyer’s GDC talk. He mentions the 3 artists he keeps praising whenever he meets people. His reason for continuing to share them was because their art was meaningful to him in this same way. Their art affected how he lived.

Brandon Boyer GDC 2011 #2

There are some games out there that create this effect…as a secondary, often temporary point that serves some other goal. But very few games are completely dedicated to this, and there are even fewer resources for how to make more games like that.

The Problem

So why the disconnect? Part of the reason is that when a designer sits down to try to create meaningful gameplay, it’s simply hard to know where to begin. It’s easier to start designing a competitive fighting game dedicated to gaining coordination skills, or an RPG dedicated to managing stats well or character development in an armor-building or combative sense.

But what about a fighting game that explores the philosophy of fighting? What about an RPG dedicated to character development in an emotional or psychological sense? Let’s get real here. Do we even know it’s possible to dedicate a sizable game to something like that?

There just isn’t that much out there to build on, even for smaller games.

A Possible Solution

Therefore, we need some baby steps. We should hold game jams fully dedicated to meaningful gameplay. It’s a chance for designers to help each other learn how to make more meaningful game experiences and to explore the potential for games to affect peoples’ lives.

What happens at a meaningful gameplay game jam? We each explore a game mechanic or other non-mechanic game element using prototyping tools. That means the intention is not to create an entire game, but to explore an element of a game from multiple perspectives. The challenge is for a developer to pick a mechanic or element that would result in meaningful gameplay and (1) develop several prototypes of it in the first 36-40 hours or so. The last 8-12 hours would be dedicated to (2) writing a critical analysis of the resulting prototypes in a text document and then having a (3) show & tell to share the prototypes and analysis. Then the analysis and feedback would be (4) posted on a website dedicated to meaningful gameplay to share with the game development community. That way we are providing resources for making all these meaningful games that everyone was asking for at this year’s GDC!

An Example Result

When I explain the idea to people, I keep going back to Jordan Magnuson’s Loneliness as a perfect example of this. If loneliness as a mechanic was explored at a meaningful gameplay game jam, you’d have 4 or 5 different versions of where he put his “message” or different versions of how the boxes moved around, followed by an analysis of how he thought the concept was communicated in each version.

Jordan Magnuson's Loneliness

Then later, as a developer who wanted to create a game that explored the concept of loneliness, you could go to the website, play through the prototypes, read the analysis of what the developer thought, and then start prototyping your own, maybe completely different, take on loneliness. The resources help you keep in mind something that did or did not work, or otherwise they just give you food for thought.

The collection of prototypes and analyses acts as a scientific journal of sorts for game design that other designers can then use. So you’d have something that’s not only useful for the creators, but also something useful for the game development community at large. That’s a good thing because you will then rely on that community in the future to help you improve.

A more informal version of this is already happening at sites like Experimental Gameplay Project. It’s just that there’s usually less analysis since developers are rushing to finish a game for a competition.

But What About Art?

Some developers have suggested that this sounds like meaningful experience is being reduced to something easily quantifiable, like a mathematical formula. I am very grateful to see this, because as a person who enjoys good debate, I would probably be presenting the other side as well. But that is not my intention.

It would be hard to disagree that there are (at least) two sides to the process of making games: the artistic side and the design side. This is a problem with the design side of games, not the artistic side. I think great progress can be made in game design through more experimentation, critical analysis, and building off of each others’ discoveries, as evidenced by science as a whole for the last 1000 years or so.

Noby noby boy

When it comes to the artistic side of games, Keita Takahashi seems to have it right when he says that progress can made in games through game developers living a rich and varied life and taking in inspiration from many things outside of the field of games. So let’s assume that a game developer who wants to create meaningful games will fulfill artistic needs in a more personal way, or at least in a way that’s less relevant to a quantifiable design process. Most of us have the life experience needed to at least take games a step deeper, either through trying to communicate our own experience or through creating a “space for searching.”

In the end, this is meant to improve the craftsmanship of design and its process. Its the ability to take what needs to be communicated by the artist and successfully express it through the medium of games, or the ability to build the space for searching. That ability is something we’ll need in order to create more meaningful games, and this kind of game jam could help develop it.

Special thanks to Jerry Shkavritko for suggesting I take the meaningful gameplay analysis idea and match it with a game jam!



Where is Our Sense of Urgency for Creating Meaningful Games?

I just returned from a wonderful experience at the Christian Game Developer’s Conference. The trip ended up being pretty last-minute, as we found out we had an opportunity to VJ with Weiv for the band BarlowGirl (more on how that went later).

The Success?? of Christian?? Games

My favorite talk of the conference was the last one, a roundtable discussion that led with a question about the perceived lack of success of Christian games compared to other media. I just came across a post by John Hanan about it, which inspired this post.

To me, the panelists’ answers mostly avoided the issue by trying to challenge the question – you see this a lot in politics – with rebuttals like “What does success really mean?” and “What does a Christian game really mean?”

LAME. At that point, my passions started to stir (and they are still stirred as you can tell by my last post!). To me, exploring definitions is much less important at this point, if you look at the progress made – or lack thereof – in game design that is deeply meaningful at all, let alone that is Christian specifically.

Links project

We Need More Shotguns

Now, do I believe we’re in a golden age of videogames? Of course! But that doesn’t mean we’ve made a lot of progress in making them meaningful. The exciting part is that we’re shotgunning new game ideas due mostly to the Internet, and in part to more-open-than-console mobile platforms. But I want to make something clear: we need a hell of a lot more shotguns.

And so, just like I asked at the end of that panel, I ask it here. And just like I prefaced this question at the end of that panel, I preface it here:  



Trip Hawkins’ “Dark Age of Videogames” is a LIE

Through a hashtag typo by Nicole Lazzaro on twitter, I was made aware of the GamesBeat conference happening today and a story about Trip Hawkins speaking on the state of the videogames industry. As a game developer who’s actually somewhat aware of what’s happening in the games industry, reading through the article naturally resulted in outrage:

Software licensing has hurt innovation in the video game industry — with social game maker Zynga being the exception to that rule — thanks to large game companies like Nintendo, said Electronic Arts founder and social gaming company Digital Chocolate founder Trip Hawkins.

Zynga. Zynga?! You gotta be kidding me. They don’t make games, they buy game companies. Zynga is a company that consumes instead of creates. To use a food analogy, Zynga is a glutton, not a chef. The ridiculousness continues:

I think we actually had our golden age when game development was using floppy disks and it was an open free platform when we could all make games like we wanted to make

That’s a bunch of crap. That golden age has re-emerged in the last couple years and is happening TODAY. It’s called indie games. Anyone, at any point, can make the game she wants to make. And she actually does in the indie games community. That’s basically the whole ethos behind indie games.

Where has Trip Hawkins been? Is he really that oblivious? Of course he isn’t. It’s strategically disadvantageous to mention the beauty, the diversity, the life of the indie games community. It’ll threaten his sales.

So don’t listen to guys like this. Videogames are alive and well. :) The very identity of videogames is constantly expanding and morphing. We are in a golden age. Enjoy the sunlight!

NOTE: Trip has generously taken time out of the conference to defend himself below, please see the comments.



Heart containers for Japan by Ted Martens

The Master Sword from Ted Martens on Vimeo.

Friend and ally Ted Martens has released a screensaver app entitled Heart containers for Japan. 100% of the proceeds are going to relief to help those affected by the earthquake and now continued radiation.

The atmosphere is great and it is both charming and soothing. Awesome work Ted. :)

I’ve been reading a really amazing book about social justice and it has convicted me and made me realize how apathetic I tend to be to those in need. Not in the emotional sense, but in the actually doing something about it sense. This is a great example of someone using their unique gifts to benefit others. I am proud to call him my friend (and best man).



Less Stuff, More Meaning

This is another one of those posts that’s been sitting on my hard drive. Pity I didn’t have the motivation to release this with the other indie game-length posts, even though it’s half finished. In this case, I wrote it almost 2 years ago. I actually still agree with it, although it makes me laugh how academic and logical I am with my argument. Maybe others will find it interesting, and since I will likely not finish the second half any time soon, I’m sharing it now…

Oprah’s Game Design Wisdom

A while back, Oprah had a show about simplicity.  I don’t really watch Oprah, but as I came home to grab some food, I walked in at just the right time to clearly hear her closing remarks, which included something along the lines of “the goal for this year is less stuff, and more meaning.”

Oprah isn’t explicitly providing that as a Christian message, but having a simple and efficient life just makes sense given my experience in life so far and more importantly, it’s a biblical principle that’s mentioned in several different places. It struck me, and naturally, my next thought was “How can this be applied to videogames?” What first struck me was how similar that statement was to how Rules of Play defines good game design.  But I realized that she started with “less stuff,” and the more I thought about it, the more important the concept of “less stuff” became.

Effective Game Design is Meaningful

Rules of Play states “the goal of successful game design is the creation of meaningful play.”  This assumes several things.  Design is intentional (has a goal) and design can be measured in terms of success (how well it achieved the goal). Agreed. After that is that game design creates play – as in what you do with a game is play it. Lastly, it assumes meaning can also be measured in terms of success, with more meaning being more successful. Agreed, although meaning is difficult to measure.

So if a person is describing the value of a game, the person who says “this game has better design” would really be saying “this game creates more meaningful play to me.” That makes sense, so it seems like a sound definition. However, when you consider the concept of efficiency, there are cases where the definition creates problems.

Here’s an example. There’s a game that gives you a certain amount of meaning – let’s call that amount m – in 3 hours of play. There’s another game that gives you m meaning in 5 hours of play. Which game is better?  According to Rules of Play, neither is better. Both create meaningful play, since the definition never addresses time.

Effective Game Design is Meaningful and Efficient

If time spent on this earth wasn’t limited, then that would be ok. But time spent here is limited, so a person can only play so many games. Therefore, if a person plays a game with the same amount of meaning but in a shorter time, the person can play another game in the time that was saved. That leads to more meaning experienced over a game player’s lifetime, which, according to the assumptions, is better than less meaning. I think this makes sense, since players already do this by seeking out and playing the games that are most meaningful to them.

If all this is true, then successful game design is the creation of meaningful play in the shortest experience. And consequently, the success of a game design is measured by an average representing the amount of meaningful play per a length of experience.

Implications of Game Design Efficiency

The addition of the concept of time to the definition of effective game design, and its subsequent affect on valuing a game, has wide-ranging implications, and also describes several game-playing behaviors.

Aaannnnd that’s all the further I got, sorry for the cliffhanger. :P