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Another Narrative Fallacy: It’s All About Choice

8 Aug

If there’s one thing that comes up in all discussions of game narrative, it’s the desirability of player choice.

Sometimes, if a game is built on a branching story structure, choices may be offered independent of game systems or mechanics. (See Telltale, Quantic Dream and others.)

Sometimes, in a game with a more open structure, choices may be expressed through a player’s interaction with simulation elements, systems and mechanics. (See Bethesda, Bioware and — finally… thankfully… – many more).

Happily, finally, everyone involved in games – especially narrative games – gets all that.

However, even with nearly everyone agreeing on the importance of choice as a defining characteristic of gameplay, there’s a trap waiting to ensnare the unwitting:

Simply put, games aren’t, and shouldn’t be, about choice.

To expand on that a bit, it’s important, I think, to get past two widely held beliefs:

First is the idea that choices are of paramount importance, in and of themselves, and by virtue of the nature of the medium.

Second is the idea that choice implies, even requires us to think in terms of, reward and punishment… better and worse… right and wrong… light and dark… good and evil.

I simply don’t get this kind of thinking. I don’t get the exclusive focus on choice. I don’t get the seeming obsession, in choice-driven games, with binary opposition.

Choice. Doesn’t. Matter.

Binary oppositions are boring.

Choices without consequences are meaningless. If they don’t lead to different outcomes – preferably radically different outcomes – what’s the point?

And games that encourage players to think in terms of right and wrong ultimately encourage players to, as I put it, “play the meter” – “Ooh, I’m evil and now I have horns and a bunch of demon tattoos!” or “Ooh, I’m good – see? I have angel wings and a halo.” It’s just ridiculous.

“But wait a minute,” you may be thinking. “Aren’t you one of the guys who’s been screaming about player choice for a couple of decades?”

No. I’m not. If you look closely at what I’ve been saying, choice isn’t the be all, end all. Not at all. And it isn’t the key to what some of us have been calling “shared authorship” all these years.

So what the hell have I been screaming about?

Here it is: The interesting aspect of player choice isn’t the choice itself. The interesting thing – the only interesting thing, really – is the revelation of consequences. Choice without consequence is a waste of time, effort and money.

But wait, you say. Doesn’t the word “consequence” imply punishment, which sends us right back to better/worse, good/evil, right/wrong? Doesn’t consequence require designers to impose a value judgment and maybe even provide a good/evil meter so players know where they stand?

Not at all.

One of the hard and fast rules I lay out for my teams is “Never judge the player.” Never. Players should never know what you think about a question or its answer. (See, this is where last week’s blog post about about questions comes in.) You’re not there to answer the questions your game asks players to consider. You’re most assuredly not there, I tell my designers, to say to players “this is right and that is wrong.” Designers exist to provide opportunities for players to test behaviors and then see the consequences of those behaviors. Given the chance, players will judge for themselves whether the benefits gained by making a particular choice were worth the cost of making it.

It may just be me, but in my experience, there are few, if any, questions or situations that lend themselves to clearly defined, universally agreed upon right or wrong answers or solutions. In most real world cases, there are only shades of gray. Even if you disagree (as extremists and believers of all stripes might) I’m comfortable saying that the most interesting situations are the ones where right and wrong are not readily apparent. I don’t understand why more game developers don’t acknowledge that and revel in our medium’s unique ability to reflect the wondrous, complex lack of clarity of the world in which we live.


Okay, so let me try to bring the two parts of this trip down narrative lane full circle. Let me close by saying this about questions, choices and the nature of game narrative:

A successful game narrative isn’t one that tells a great story (though that’s obviously desirable!).

A successful game narrative is one that asks questions.

A successful game narrative gives players the tools to answer those questions both locally (in the moment) and globally (in how the entire story plays out).

A successful game narrative is one that shows shows players the consequences of their local and global decisions, without judging players for making those decisions.

There are only shades of gray and, that being the case, all decisions have costs as well as benefits. There is no absolute right or absolute wrong. (And, yes, I’m a moral relativist at heart…) Even if you disagree, games that reflect that will get players thinking in ways no other medium can match.

A successful game narrative is one that engenders conversations not only about how each player solved a game problem, but also why. Most of the dialogue we hear around games is about optimal strategies or about how moving a cutscene was. How limited and dull that is.

What I want – and hope you want – is to hear players debating the rightness or wrongness of their decisions. I want to hear one player say, “How could you have stolen that?” and another player describing her thought process… I want to hear one player ask, “Why did you leave that guy alive after what he did?” and another make a case for Ghandi-like pacifism… I want to hear players who reach an endgame driven by their choices ask one another, “How could you think that solution was appropriate or right or ethical?”

“Appropriate,” “right” and “ethical” are magic words. Other media can make the claim that they deal with those concepts, too – and they do – but in those media, the words belong to authors while in games, those words can and should belong to players.

Wrap your mind around all this, and we’re on our way to realizing the potential of games as a unique narrative form. Clearly, we owe something to earlier narrative models, but we can and must build on their teachings, maybe even leave those teachings behind to create something more collaborative, more moving and more compelling than any other medium can be.

Embracing choice means we’re halfway there. What do you say we go the rest of the way?

A Narrative Fallacy: It’s All About Aristotle

1 Aug

Lots of people – even game developers who specialize in narrative games – fall into a couple of common traps when they think about games and stories, and about the roles of players and developers in the telling of those stories.

First is that any series of events, with setup, complication, resolution and denouement constitutes a narrative, in any medium, linear or interactive. By the letter of the law, I suppose that’s correct. But before you plot out your magnum opus, I’d contend that the characteristics I just listed, must be in support of something – something deeper, a meta-narrative. There has to be a subtext (or, to be just a tad judgmental, you’re just making crap and you can stop wasting my time and yours).

Put another way, before you start crafting your story, make sure you have something to say. You’d think this would be self-evident, but I’m not sure it is, given the quality of most game stories. Frankly, for me, the statement I want to make is of paramount importance. Actually, that isn’t quite true. If I wanted to make a statement, I’d write a novel or make a movie. What’s of true importance to me is the issue I want players to grapple with.

Here’s the key for me when I think about game narrative as opposed to traditional narrative forms:

Linear media answer questions; games ask them and allow players to answer them.

Note that the word “interactivity” is nowhere to be found in this formulation of the defining characteristic of game narrative. That word is overused, ill-defined and really kind of useless. Think back to the narrative games you’ve played and see if you can identify the questions they ask you to answer… see if the game empowered you to answer them yourself, as opposed to just divining the answer the developer predetermined for you. It’s an interesting exercise.

Let me give you some examples from two games I worked on.

For me, Deus Ex is “about” four interrelated questions:

  1. What happens when you take a guy who believes the world is black and white and throw him into a world that – like our own – is all shades of gray?
  2. What would the world – our world, the real world – be like if every conspiracy theory people believed to be true were, in fact, true?
  3. What’s the nature of humanity – at what point in the world of human augmentation do we stop being human and start being… something else?
  4. What’s the most desirable “end state” for the world? Are we better off in a technological dark age in which people have genuine free will? Are we better off in a world where an all-seeing AI can gift us with total connectivity and, one hopes, the empathy that arises from universal connection, at the cost of giving up our freedom? Or are we simply better off as we are today (IF conspiracies are real), ruled by a shadowy elite, not knowing it, and going about our daily lives none the wiser?

Two things to note:

First, answering these questions doesn’t involve defeating anything or solving anything puzzly or being told anything by an author. Yes, you play a character named J.C. Denton and, yes, there’s an overarching plot that allows these questions to bubble up so players can interact with them. Yes, that’s true, but those questions can only be answered by YOU, the player, not by a PC puppet. At the end of the day, the character you play is of secondary and, basically, irrelevant in narrative terms.

Second, I don’t really care whether anyone knows the game is “about” your personal answer to those four questions. No author wants his/her/their themes expressed obviously and unsubtly. Frankly, I doubt most of the Deus Ex team even know what the game was about for me. All that mattered – to me – was that the game allowed players to answer those questions through their choices during play.

Another example. Disney Epic Mickey asked a few questions, too. Frankly, it pains me that a lot of players didn’t see how similar in intent and philosophy Epic Mickey was to the other games I’ve worked on, but that’s another story… Anyway, Epic Mickey asked a completely different set of questions than Deus Ex:

  1. How important are family and friends to you?
  2. Is it better to be less powerful, but have friends who will help you do what you need to do; or is it better to be more individually powerful, but alone in the world?
  3. Is it better to do the easy thing to solve a local problem, when the fate of the entire world is in your hands; or is it better to do the hard thing in solving local problems, because the small things we do add up to far bigger things?
  4. Allen Varney, one of my longtime collaborators, who was critical to the early conceptualization of Epic Mickey reminded me about a fourth question: What happens when you remain rooted in the past, versus being willing to forgive past grievances and move on?

Again, players may not realize it, but they’re answering these questions with every step they take and through every interaction with the gameworld, the characters and the developer-generated situations they find themselves in.

Yes, even a cartoon mouse can be the vehicle for asking big questions…

Next time (pretty soon, I suspect, ’cause I’m on a roll and feeling frisky), I’ll talk about another narrative trap game developers fall into – that games are all about choice.

Playing Word Games

2 Jan

I’ve always been fascinated by word games. I love Scrabble and Boggle and Upwords and crossword puzzles and bowl-a-scores and TexTwist to death. But those aren’t the sort of word games I’ve been thinking about recently.

No, I’ve been thinking of word games of a different sort — the kind I grew up reading in the back of New York magazine. Anyone remember the old New York Magazine Competition, edited by Mary Ann Madden? My family used to gather around the dinner table and read it aloud each week, roaring with laughter at the witty responses of readers to Madden’s humorous problems. Some of these were hysterically funny.

In one Competition, readers were asked to submit brand names for products found in a drugstore. Responses included a bunch of fake birth control pills (Shed Roe, Off Spring, Junior Miss, Scionara, Kiddy Foil, Ova Kill, Bumbino, Heir Pollution, Teeny Bopper, No Kidding, Gene Fowler, Antiseedant, Womb Forwent, Absorbine Junior, Infant aside); deodorants (Pit Stop, Arrivederci Aroma); hair restorers (Hair Apparent, Balderdash); tranquilizers (Damitol); and a children’s antibiotic: (Mickeymycin).

In another, asking for names of prequels, some of the entries included: Kindergarten for Scandal;
Two Dalmations; Prince Kong; Malcolm IX; Little Richard III; We’re Running Low on Mohicans; Wee Willie Loman; Mrs. Warren’s Entry Level Position; The Personal Ads of J. Alfred Prufrock; The Baggage Check-In of the Bumble Bee; Cogito Ergo Subtotal; A Man Called Horsie.

That was pretty typical, though sometimes the Competitions got far more literary (and more challenging for 15-year-old me to suss out!). And if it whets your appetite for more, the bad news is the Competitions are nowhere to be found online (though this site at least cites some of them) and Mary Ann Madden’s three books of Competition complitions — Maybe He’s Dead, Thank You For the Giant Sea Tortoise and Son of Giant Sea Tortoise — are all out of print (how can this be?!). They’re available used if you dig a bit, but pretty pricey.

So, you’re kind of out of luck on the New York Competition front. And that’s why I’m so jazzed about my recent discovery that The Atlantic magazine runs a column by Barbara Wallraff (called, variously, Word Court, Word Fugitives and In a Word) that is clearly in the same vein as the old Competitions. And, like Mary Ann Madden back in the day, Wallraff and her readers routinely have me furrowing my brow, trying to keep up, and laughing out loud as I read.

There was one Word Fugitives recently that asked readers to submit words that described that peculiar phenomenon of things “that seem ubiquitous when you aren’t looking for them but that are nowhere to be found when you are.” Among the answers? Neverywhere… unbiquitous… ubiquitless… fewbiquitous… omniabsent… omnevanescent… ameniteases… elusiversal… You get the idea.

Another one I loved asked readers to submit words to describe the universal tendency to rearrange a dishwasher someone else has already loaded. The answers there included the thematically linked redishtribution, obsessive compulsive dishorder, dishorderly conduct, redishtricting, dishrespect and dish jockying plus the outlier (and my favorite) onecupsmanship.

If these pun-ishing pursuits didn’t make you laugh, there’s not much I can say to change your mind and you might want to stop reading right now. I live for this stuff. And reading Wallraff’s stuff got me thinking about some other word games I’ve been obsessed with and addicted to over the years:

  • The New Yorker’s last-page caption-writing contest. This fills me with admiration for the wit of the readers, mostly because I’m so god-awful bad at turning visuals into wordplay. Frustrates the heck out of me…
  • National Novel Writing Month (Nanowrimo), which I find so impossibly, wonderfully goofy I’ll have to join several of my friends who’ve tried it and give it a whirl someday. (That’ll happen after I retire or something, since I can’t imagine having even a month of free time to devote to writing a novel!)
  • The Six-Word Memoirs web page, where people sum up their lives in, yes, exactly six words. I first discovered this in The New Yorker, back in February. Read the article here and then come back. I’ll wait. Did you notice anything odd about the story? Like the fact that EVERY SENTENCE IN IT HAD EXACTLY SIX WORDS! I caught onto that about halfway through reading it and just about died. Talk about wit and obsession in equal doses. A simple idea, but genius. I mean, it’s one thing to write a really (REALLY) short autobiography. It’s another thing to try to craft an entire article that’s as readable as anything in The New Yorker, while working under the constraint of sentences exactly six words long. I was in awe…
  • The books written without a specific letter. (This is called a “lipogram” and the number of examples is, to my mind, pretty horrifying, if incredibly entertaining. The most remarkable of the lipogram texts are the ones that eschew the letter “e” (just try it…). Amazingly, there have been at least two, that I know of, Gadsby by Ernest Vincent Wright and the even more remarkable A Void by Georges Perec. (Perec’s work is the most amazing word-thing of all time, by virtue of the fact that it was originally written, e-less, in French as Las Disparitions  and then translated into English by Gilbert Adair who crafted a translation that ALSO includes no e’s whatsoever. That, my friends, is just crazy!
  • And if you’re still with me and at all into words, by all means check out the BBC radio program I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue. By far the word-wittiest program in history and a laugh-out-loud hour you can count on.

Finally, in my catalog of word-game-wondrousness, is the “One-Pulse Word Game.” We used to play this at Steve Jackson Games all the time. I’m pretty sure Steve Jackson came up with it himself and I’ve often wondered why he’s never turned this sure-fire bit of gameplay goodness into a real game — surely, fame and fortune would quickly follow.

For those of you who’ve never experienced the…ahem… joys of the One-Pulse Word Game, here’s how it goes: Someone starts talking in words that have just one part — not two, nor three, but a lone part. Others join in the fun, in a mode of speech just as short. And they would do this, back and forth, as long as they could and as fast as they could — no pause to think, no stops or halts at all, when things went well (and if you could pull it off). It was tons of funs — it IS tons of fun. I play it now, in text, you see. Get good at it and wow your friends, or drive them off, as this can get old in no time.

I’ll stop now…

Twenty years after my departure from Steve Jackson Games, the One-Pulse Word Game remains one of the great joys in my life — not least because I’m pretty good at it — and that “it” is something most people aren’t good at. Call it a gift (as I do) or a curse (as the lovely wife, Caroline, does), it’s mine and I love it. Plus, there’s good, clean fun in doing something completely offbeat that most people don’t even notice you’re doing. And then there’s the annoyance factor once people do figure out that what they thought was a real conversation was just an excuse for you to have some private fun (something they usually realize only after you tell them you’re doing anything odd at all). But you have to get good at the one-pulse word game to reach the point that people don’t notice, so start practicing (not with ME of course!). Anyway, if you get good, you can rip — talking without pause for breath and offering up opportunities to annoy your friends no end. Life, as they say, is good!

And, as long as we’re on the topic of words, and one-syllable word stuff in particular, if you get into the One-Pulse Word Game be sure to check out the “books in words of one syllable” published toward the end of the 19th century by McLaughlin Bros. You can find some of these books in e-book form, but I strongly recommend seeking out the real thing — the books were quite beautiful, something e-books, even on my beloved Kindle, are not. You can find the actual books on antiquarian book sites or ebay once in a while and they’re utterly fascinating — an early attempt, as I understand it, to encourage immigrant literacy by offering classic, uplifting fiction and works of American history in simple language for folks learning English as adults. I have a bunch of these books now and treasure them — and I owe it all to Steve Jackson’s One-Pulse Word game.

Anyway, I wish this was all going somewhere, that I had a point to all this. Sadly, I don’t, really.  The closest I can come to a point is that the word games I love all involve work on the part of the “user” — if you don’t think about what you’re reading, or hearing or whatever, the “jokes” don’t mean a thing. Reading a Competition or a Word Justice, or listening to I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue or playing the One-Pulse Word game requires thinking, interpretation, interaction. You’re not just regurgitating memorized data… you’re not just mashing buttons… you’re actually thinking, collaborating with the creator of the “gag.” And that typifies the games I most enjoy playing and, I hope, the games I make.

So, maybe there’s a point to all this, after all. But truth be told, I just spent a bunch of time reading a year’s worth of The Atlantic and laughing at the word games in the back, which got me thinking about the New York Competition back when I was a kid, which got me thinking about all those other word-oriented pastimes I’ve come to love over the years. And that led to this — yet another overly wordy blog post.

And on that note, I will end. In words of one syll… er… part.

We Interrupt this GDC retrospective…

27 Mar

I still need to finish writing up my thoughts about GDC (assuming anyone still cares, given how much time has passed since the show!), but I had to get something out there first:

The latest online issue of The Escapist magazine includes an article by Brenda Braithwaite called “The Myth of the Media Myth.” It’s quite good, a nice, personal, but generalizable look at the way “normal people” and the media see us, see games and gamers.

My attitude toward the “Games are evil” dialogue is to ignore it as much as possible — I see “us” winning in the end, as the population of people who don’t play games…er…go away (as in, well, to be frank, age and, eventually, die off…). The enemies of games aren’t, by and large, kids — they’re not even young adults. The folks who fear games and their effect on society are older, non-gamers, and like similar populations of the past — anti-movie folks, anti-TV folks, anti-rock-&-roll folks — time passes, the older folks go away and the medium the kids love and adults hate becomes mainstream. Then something comes along that the erstwhile kids don’t understand and the up-and-coming kids love and the cycle repeats itself.

This is all a long way of saying, “Wait. Games will become mainstream. The grownups can’t kill the medium. Time heals all wounds.”

At least that’s my attitude.

Brenda’s article takes a somewhat different view of things and I strongly encourage you to check her article out. But, the thing that really go me going was Clint Hocking’s closing comments on the subect, which I quote here (apologies to Brenda for blowing the Big Idea with which she chose to close her essay). It’s Brenda talking about Clint talking about the anti-game folks and what he’d like to see happen with them:

Clint Hocking says what I didn’t think to say at dinner that night. “If I had a choice, I would want to include these distrustful folks in finding solutions. I would prefer it if they understood. I would prefer it if they could see the long sequence of events that is going to address their fears and create the medium they will inevitably love and participate in, whether they expect to or not.”

“What’s sad is that their ideological, ignorant, hostile, one-dimensional attitudes oversimplify one of the most beautiful problems in human history. It makes me very sad that many of these people will diefearing games. I would so rather include them, but they have to meet us in the middle or become sad, lonely, reclusive luddites.

“In the end, we will stamp them out if we have to, but it would be nicer if we all tap danced our way into the future together.”

Reading this, I felt kind of ashamed for counseling an ostrich-like approach to the situation when we could actually be doing something proactive to bring people into the fold. Damn, Clint’s a smart guy.

GDC ’08, follow-up, part 1 (a little late…)

23 Mar

Once again, work got the better of me and I didn’t get a chance to go into more detail on my GDC experience. Now, enough time has passed I’ve forgotten most of what I hoped to say, but I’ll give it a go anyway.

The IGDA Education Summit

The show got off to a good start, for me, with the summit and, particularly Ernest Adams terrific opening keynote entitled, “Ten Commandments for Game Development Education.” He’s posted the script for the talk at his website, so I won’t go into too much detail, but for those of you who don’t want to read the whole thing (and you should read the whole thing, btw…), I’ll just list the commandments, as I thumbtyped them on my phone, in reverse order as God and Ernest intended:

10. Thou shalt not give tests in game development courses, nor be dogmatic in thy doctrine, for even thou knowest not all.

9. Thou shalt reward precision and punish hand-waving, for the Lord loveth it not.

8. Except ye teach a master’s level course in experimental interaction design, thou shalt not emphasize aesthetics or story at the expense of interaction, i.e. gameplay.

7. Thou shalt teach not only game development, but also the history of games, the analysis of games, and the sociology of gaming.

6. With industry shalt thou build relationships; yet also shalt thou remember that “industry” explodeth in all directions, and meaneth more than PC and console games for the West.

5. Thou shalt require teamwork. Thou shalt teach project management, and gently discourage over-ambitious projects.

4. Thou shalt permit failure in thy students’ first-year projects, and encourage them to learn from it.

3. In their final projects, thou shalt encourage thinking outside the box.

2. Thou shalt require thy pupils to study other arts and sciences besides the craft of game development, for the ignorant developer createth only the derivative game.

1. Thou shalt integrate all the disciplines of game development unto the utmost of thy institution’s capacity.

Yeah, the pseudo-King James language is a little goofy but at too-early-o’clock on Monday morning, it struck the right chord with me and, while I don’t always see eye-to-eye with Ernest, in this case, I think he was pretty much right on the money. I hope the assembled educators got the message. Go read the full text and then come back here and let’s talk.

The next day, Tuesday, Ian Bogost, from Georgia Tech gave a talk on (are you sitting down?) “interdisciplinarity.” And love.

I’m not so sure about the “love” part (though you can decide for yourself by reading Ian’s text on his website). Frankly, I’m not even so sure about the “interdisciplinarity” part. But I really enjoyed what Ian had to say about ideas, and about designers (well, Will Wright, at least), exploring in their work ideas from outside the world of gaming. The need to find for designers to find inspiration outside the world of games and to be broadly enough interested, educated and read, is critical to our future. That’s been one of my hobbyhorses for a while now.

One of my great fears is that the next generation of developers will come to the medium with nothing but gaming experiences to draw from – and that educators, focused too narrowly on preparing people for Jobs In The Game Business, will focus only on directly game relevant courses, ignoring all those pesky liberal arts courses that teach us, oh, you know, what it means to be human and all… And that will lead to imitation and stagnation in a medium that already settles far too often for the former and can ill-afford the latter, if we hope to reach our true potential.

Ian kinda got at that in his talk and I’ll even forgive him for using the word “interdisciplinarity” if it’s in the service of ideas I agree with so strongly!

Tuesday also saw my only GDC speaking gig this year — I participated in a panel about what happens when pro developers get into teaching. I whined pretty dramatically about how hard teaching is, but since I already blogged about that some months ago, I’ll spare all of you and post thoughts on the rest of the show soon as I can jog my memory a bit and get my hands back on a keyboard.

Master Class Videos

3 Mar

A bunch of people have asked about this, so here ya go: The University of Texas has, apparently, decided to post video of the evening sessions from my Master Class in Video Games and Digital Media. (They didn’t talk to me beforehand and I hope all the appropriate permissions are in place!)

Anyway, you can check out the sessions at the class website.

I have to admit, I haven’t watched the videos myself, but I learned a ton doing the interviews and listening to my guests’ presentations so I hope you’ll find them interesting.

If you want to watch them in order, here’s the scoop:

  1. September 10, 2007: Warren Spector (Intro Lecture)
  2. September 17, 2007: Patricia York (HR Director, Disney Interactive Studios)
  3. September 24, 2007: Harvey Smith (then Creative Director, Midway Austin)
  4. October 1, 2007: Hal Barwood (Game Designer, Screenwriter par excellence)
  5. October 8, 2007: Matthew Bellows (GM, Floodgate Entertainment)
  6. October 15, 2007: Marc LeBlanc (Designer/Programmer, Mind Control Software)
  7. October 22, 2007: Mike Morhaime (President, Blizzard)
  8. October 29, 2007: Tim Willits (Lead Designer, id Software)
  9. November 5, 2007: Seamus Blackley (Talent Agent, Creative Artists Agency – also, “Father of the Xbox”)
  10. November 12, 2007: Paul Weaver (Director of Development, Junction Point Studios)
  11. November 19, 2007: Gordon Walton (Co-Studio Director, Bioware Austin)
  12. November 26, 2007: Richard Garriott (Creative Guy whose title I don’t actually know, NC Soft)
  13. December 3, 2007: Richard Hilleman (Guy With No Title – and proud of it – at Electronic Arts)

Not a bad lineup, if I say so myself — and some of the lesser known folks will surprise you, so don’t just go for the Big Name guys! And I’ll warn you, I can’t remember which week it was, but early in the semester, I gave what has to be one of the worst lectures of my life. Trust me — you’ll know what I’m talking about if/when you stumble across it!

GDC ’08, initial thoughts

2 Mar

I arrived in SF on Sunday, January 17th, thinking I was going to have a relatively quiet week — a couple of days of attending the IGDA Education Summit, where I’d take part in one panel and an advisory board dinner… then GDC, where I’d do a couple of press things and some recruiting stuff but, mostly, just hang out with friends and attend interesting sessions. Maybe learn something about this wacky game business…

How wrong I was!

Sure, most of what I figured would happen, happened, but it never occurred to me that there’d be so many press folks who wanted to talk — I mean, it’s not like I could talk about the game (or games) we may (or may not) be working on these days at Junction Point, since we joined the Disney family.

But there it was — by Sunday night, my calendar was full to bursting with press interviews. Twenty-eight of them, if memory serves. I did a podcast (where I got to meet Paul Wedgwood from Splash Damage — awesome guy) . I did a bunch of on-camera stuff, including an Xplay thing with Adam Sessler and Chris Taylor. I talked to a bunch of print folks, too, of course (too many to link to — try Google and keep an eye on the newsstands, if you’re really interested).

And, you know what really surprised me? I had a great time. Instead of the same old questions, it seemed like each journalist came in with his (no “hers” to talk to, sadly) own set of issues and interests. The variety of questions I got was fantastic — trust me when I say I’m not used to that. It’s usually the same questions asked over and over. I spend a lot of time trying to keep myself entertained by coming up with new answers to old questions. That was TOTALLY not the case this year. The interviewers kept me very much on my toes. No telling how the actual coverage looks (since I don’t actually read the press stuff about myself — that way lies madness!). But, assuming I didn’t say something really stupid without realizing it and the press guys actually print what I said, I have to give a big shout-out to the gaming press. Great job, guys!

So, other than talk to the press, what did I do and/or take away from the show this year? The short answer is that I went to the IGDA’s Education Summit, which had some real highlights (about which, more later).

I also got to attend a handful of sessions and panels, all quite wonderful. At the high level, the show was bigger than ever (which is both good and bad) — the ratio of fans and wannabes to working developers seems to be a bit worse than in years past. I mean, I’ve never had a kid’s mom stop me at GDC and ask if it’d be okay if she took a picture of her son and me together ’cause he’s such a huge fan but too shy to ask me himself… That is WAAAAY too freaky.

As far as the various tracks went, the tech track seemed really, really strong; I paid no attention to the art track (mea culpa); and there were tons of design talks, which ordinarily I’d applaud — there were lots of people talking about story, that’s for sure. But looking at the list of talks (and, bear in mind, I wasn’t able to attend many of them, so I’m talking through my hat here), it almost seemed as if the organizers said “everyone wants to talk design so let’s load up on design talks.” When I  looked at the actual topics being covered, it seemed like a lot of people talking about stuff we don’t really understand very well –which, now that I think about it, describes the situation precisely! Maybe quantity, which reflects growing interest, is a necessary first step on the road to quality. Let’s hope so.

So what sessions did I make sure I had time to attend?

  • I had to check out Clint Hocking’s talk on immersion (Clint being the most consistently interesting/challenging/entertaining speaker at GDC the last few years);
  • Noah Falstein’s interview with Sid Meier (which proved that Sid is, as he always has been, the designer’s designer and as all-around great a guy as you hope he’d be);
  • A round table led by Henry Lowood on game preservation — preserving our history in the form of the actual games themselves and the materials associated with their creation (one of my personal obsessions);
  • And then there was one of the best GDC talks I’ve attended in years — the Super Smash Brothers Brawl talk by designer Masahiro Sakurai. Wow, that was something!

I’ll post more detailed thoughts on all of this stuff as time permits, but wanted to get something out there in the blogosphere before GDC faded in everyone’s memory.

Top 10 oversight!

22 Feb

I’m sitting at SFO, after a whirlwind GDC 2008, going back over my notes and trying to remember all the good, bad and ugly stuff I saw and heard this past week. I’ll post a bunch of stuff about the show soon. But, first, there was a Really Big Thing I realized while I was out here.

Among other things, I attended a cocktail party Wednesday night, thrown by the Mouse House, where I ran into some really cool folks who got me talking about ten best lists and, in talking to them, I realized there was a horrible, horrible oversight in the top ten videogames list I posted last year.

So, no, this isn’t a post offering my list of the “top 10 oversights of all time.” It’s a post about an oversight in the list — an oversight I can’t allow to stand uncorrected.

When Electronic Arts acquired Origin, I met a guy named Rich Hilleman. If you don’t know who he is, you should — a hugely influential, if somewhat underappreciated guy, in my estimation. Anyway, Rich was my boss back then (and Richard Garriott’s and Chris Roberts’ and so on). And when I met him, he was working with Dani Bunten on a sequel to M.U.L.E., which about floored me since M.U.L.E. was (as I gushed to him then, and have gushed to him repeatedly ever since) ONE OF MY FAVORITE GAMES.

See where this is going?

As I spoke with folks at the Disney party, I started gushing to them about how M.U.L.E. was, and is, one of my favorite games. And I realized that I had completely spaced it when I put together that top 10 list a couple of months ago. So, as is my wont, I’m going to revise the list (and probably not for the last time!):


  1. Diablo
  2. Guitar Hero
  3. Half Life
  4. Legend of Zelda: Link to the Past
  5. M.U.L.E.
  6. Suikoden
  7. Super Mario 64
  8. Tetris
  9. Ultima IV
  10. Warcraft II
  11. (Ico)
  12. (Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess — okay, so I cheated and went for 12 on the videogame list. So sue me.)

For those of you without eidetic memories (or those of you just too lazy to check the blog archives!), the game I dropped was Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time — and not just because M.U.L.E. slots right into my alphabetical list in the same spot as Ocarina… I dropped that game because, fun as it was, Link to the Past epitomizes everything wondrous about the Zelda games and I couldn’t bring myself to drop one of the other games, all of which offer uniquely joyful gameplay experiences.

As far as M.U.L.E. itself goes, what’s not to love? It offered immensely varied gameplay; it was multiplayer before multiplayer was cool; it offered ample opportunities to screw your friends; it inspired all sorts of games after it (though none have matched it); and the music alone can bring a smile to my face. (If you’re like me, you’re humming the jaunty M.U.L.E. theme right now!)

The fact that no one’s remade M.U.L.E. is amazing and appalling to me. All it needs is a graphical update, and some online multiplayer and you’re good to go. Come on EA or Ozark Softscape or whoever owns the rights nowadays. It’d be perfect for Xbox Live Arcade or something… A whole new generation of gamers needs M.U.L.E. They may not know it, but they do. And so do I. Great, great game…

The Man Who Hates the World

29 Dec

Among my friends and intimates I have a reputation for, well, not liking anything — media things, I mean. It’s mostly deserved. Ask me about the movies I’ve seen recently, or the games I’ve played and my usual response is, “Hated it” or “Man, that could have been better if only they’d done X, Y and Z.”

I like to think this is a reflection of a well-honed critical sensibility combined with really high standards.

Or maybe I’m just a curmedgeonly old coot.

Whichever it is, imagine my amazement when I find myself compelled to report that I’m playing some really fun games these days and, wonder of wonders, I’ve seen three movies this week that I can honestly say I loved.


I’ll come back to the movies in another post some time soon. But let’s look at the games I’m playing — Rock Band and Legend of Zelda: The Phantom Hourglass. No big surprises there, I guess. Both are getting the kinds of kudos they deserve. They’re exceptionally well-executed, nicely balanced, graphically appealing, fun and challenging.

Rock Band has enchanted my wife, who loves the singing bit, and some friends, including a guy who plays drums in my band and finds the Rock Band drumming more difficult than the real thing! — for the record, I ascribe the latter phenomenon to the fact that he’s played the drums most of his life and he’s played Rock Band drums for a couple of hours — but whatever it is, it hasn’t stopped the playing, not a bit. And Rock Band has certainly enchanted me (though I wish I could wrench the microphone away from the lovely wife, and the drumkit away from the drummer — I’ve been relegated to the guitar, the instrument I actually play in my semi-real life, which is annoying).

Even more than my Guitar Hero experience, I feel like playing Rock Band, as fun as it is, is more than just fun. It might actually make me a better musician, which kinda freaks me out. I can hear things in the remixed tracks that aren’t apparent in the real thing (at least not to my ears) and I’ve certainly been exposed to some music I never would have listened to if I weren’t obsessing about beating a game! I know I’m going to end up a better singer. And I really want to learn to drum now. Go Harmonix! You’re changing my world.

And, man, does my avatar rock. The character customization features are terrific. (I won’t go into how much time my wife spends fiddling with her character to get it JUST right…) When the crowd starts singing along and my guy’s up on the stage, gyrating around the way I’d like to (if I lacked anything resembling shame!), I’m the rock star I’ve always wanted to be. Can’t ask for much more from a game.

As far as Phantom Hourglass goes, well, y’all know how I feel about the Zelda games. Love ’em! I’m not getting as strong a sense of story, or of doing something truly heroic, the way I usually do in Zeldas, but the puzzles are exceptionally well crafted. And I love the way I’m being introduced to new game elements in isolation and then offered the opportunity to use them in combination to achieve new effects.

It’s also cool to feel like I have some control over something in a Zelda game — the ship customization stuff, I mean. It’s nowhere near as amazing as the Rock Band avatar stuff, but it’s something.

To be frank, I hate having to go back through the main dungeon over and over, and having it timed and all. But other than that, I’m loving Phantom Hourglass.

Incredibly, these two games have actually prevented me from loading up Mario Galaxy (the game I was most looking forward to playing this holiday season), Call of Duty 4 and Metroid for the Wii (yeah, I know I’m way behind…). But with Rock Band and Phantom Hourglass, who has time for anything else?

I’ll talk about the movies I’m loving soon. Gotta jet now. Later.

Playing Catch-up, Part 1: Reaction and Innovation

30 Aug

Clearly, I need to just jettison the idea of “weekly posts” on this blog! I can’t even remember the last time I posted something substantive. And it’s not like my life is going to get any less crazy in the foreseeable future. So… Rather than indulge my need to write lengthy tomes, I’m going to try being short, sweet and to the point this time around, and over the next few days, catch up on a lot of stuff I’ve been meaning to write about.

First, there’s tying up the loose ends on my earlier thoughts about reactive vs. blank-slate creativity.

Where we left things (back in June!), was with me asking, “how do I reconcile the JPS core value of ‘Innovation’ (see my blog post from June 9, 2007) with the reactive/editorial approach to design discussed here? That, and a bit about what comes after the frustration, is the topic for next week.” Leaving aside the unintentionally humorous reference to “next week,” that still seems like an interesting question.

My answer has a couple of parts. First, the way in which you react can (okay, for me it’s a must) include at least one thing no one’s ever seen before. Every game, no matter how small/big a budget you have, how inexperienced/burned out the team may be or how constraining the license is… every game should throw at least one thing at players they haven’t seen before. In the context of the original question, that means your reaction just needs to include one curve ball to seem, and truly be, innovative.

If you take that next crazy step and adopt my personal “kitchen sink” approach to design — there isn’t a minimalist bone in my body, to the chagrin of my teams… If you throw a bunch of new ideas in with a bunch of old ones, your starting point doesn’t really much matter.

Clean slate? Reaction?… Who cares? In the same way complex behaviors can emerge in a game or simulation from the interaction of simple rules, it doesn’t take too many new ideas mixed in with the old ones to result in something new, unexpected and wonderful.

So I guess what I’ve taken months to get around to saying is that there’s no contradiction between innovation and reaction at all. What matters is the end product, what’s on the screen, what happens when the player puts his or her hands on the keyboard or controller, not where you started.

So, with that out of the way, let me address the second dangly bit from my June post — what comes after the frustration? Once you’ve decided to react and have the barebones outline of an idea, what next?

Back in 2004, I participated in the very first Game Design Challenge coordinated by Eric Zimmerman at GDC. It was me, Raph Koster and Will Wright (nothing intimidating about THAT lineup!) and our challenge was to design a love story game. Those of you who attended remember that I wimped out — I was so overwhelmed by the limitations of our medium, I couldn’t come up with a thing.

At the time, I thought Raph — a guy I love and am NOT dissing in any way here! — sort of cheated, conceiving a game that was about characters in love but didn’t do much to make the player feel anything… and Will was just a freakin’ supergenius whose concept was sort of a multiplayer cross between a shooter and a soap opera that should have gone into development instantly! I STILL want to play that game. Anyway, I spent weeks thinking about how I’d make a love-sim, how I’d make a player truly feel love, even down to getting the same chemicals flowing through their bodies that would flow if they fell in love in the real world…

I came up with nothing. So I gave a meta-talk and discussed the thought process I go through when I first start thinking about a game idea. I revealed for the first and only time the Seven Questions I always ask myself to determine if an idea is worth pursuing. (You know the really weird thing? I don’t even tell my teams about this — I go through this exercise alone, evey time, every game… my own private ritual. I’m not even sure my wife, the lovely and talented Caroline, knows I do this!) Anyway, the Seven Questions are:

1. What are we trying to do? What’s the core idea?

2. What’s the potential? Why do this game over all the others we could do?

3. What are the development challenges? Really hard stuff is fine — impossible or unfundable? Not so good…

4. Has anyone done this before? If so, what can we learn from them? If not, what does that tell us?

5. How well-suited to games is the idea? There are some things we’re just not good at and shouldn’t even attempt. A love story, for example!

6. What’s the player fantasy and does that lead to good player goals? If the fantasy and the goals aren’t there, it’s a bad idea.

7. What does the player do? What are the “verbs” of the game?

If I can’t answer the questions above, or the answers come out negative, the idea never makes it to the next stage — conceptualization. If the answers are positive — if there are good reasons to make the game, the development challenges aren’t too bad, the idea is well-suited to the medium (i.e., NOT a love story game!), we move on to concepting and the real fun begins.

So, for me, the scenario goes like this: After frustration comes reaction; after reaction comes questioning; after questioning comes concepting; after that, all hell breaks loose (and if you’ve ever made a game, you know exactly what I’m talking about…).

Ack. I said I was going to be brief, didn’t I? So much for that idea! Anyway, go forth and innovate, and don’t worry about the source of your inspiration. Whether you’re a reactor or a clean slater, as long as you’re inspired and finding that ONE NEW THING, you’re okay in my book.

Coming up — posts about all the stuff that’s prevented me from posting here:

  • Siggraph 2007
  • Preserving the history of games before it’s too late
  • Teaching
  • A recently published book about the 100 best boardgames that includes a chapter I wrote