Archive for the ‘Game Design’ Category

Playing Word Games

January 2, 2009

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…

March 27, 2008

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…)

March 23, 2008

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

March 3, 2008

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

March 2, 2008

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!

February 22, 2008

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

December 29, 2007

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

August 30, 2007

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

“Clean Slate” vs. “Reactive” Creativity

June 30, 2007

A couple of weeks ago I started out writing about my habit of getting obsessed with games I’d never think about making, which last week led to some thoughts on different kinds of creativity and how my kind of creativity starts with frustration about…something, anything, but mostly about games styles that I think could be improved so easily if developers weren’t so committed to convention. (You know what I’m talking about — games that seem driven by “Do what we’ve always done because it works…and we can always add prettier pictures!” That kind of thinking just frustrates the heck out of me.) And that led to the realization that frustration gets me thinking, which (paradoxically) keeps me playing and (ultimately) gets me reacting. Next thing I know, I’m waking up at 4 in the morning, scribbling furiously on a notepad and before you know it, there’s a game I have to make.

Those 4 a.m. creative bursts (which often drive teams crazy — “Oh, no, Warren didn’t sleep last night… we’re all in trouble!”)… these reactions to frustration, stand in stark contrast with what I’ve started thinking of as “clean slate” creativity. And, while some of the folks who emailed me or posted comments here pointed out that everything is a reaction to something (nothing new under the sun…), I do think there’s a difference between my approach and that of other folks. I say that because I’ve been lucky enough to work with plenty of “clean slate” guys — Allen Varney…Greg Costikyan…David “Zeb” Cook in tabletop games… Richard Garriott, Chris Roberts and Doug Church in electronic games… (And anyone want to quibble with me throwing Will Wright’s name into the “clean slate” bucket? We haven’t worked together, but I think he’s a safe addition to the group!)

These guys routinely come to the table with a vision of something entirely new, a game unlike anything anyone’s ever seen. Half the time they sound nuts when they describe what they want to do, even to me. The other half of the time, I can’t wait to play their games and immediately start looking for ways I can help to enable and empower them — when you run up against something Totally New, you kind of have to help realize the idea, don’t you?

In contrast, while I have plenty of ideas, I don’t often find myself with all-new ideas like that — as I said, I’m more a reactive kind of guy. I play a game or read a book or watch a movie; I get frustrated at how lame it is or how conventional or how easily it could be improved. I see ways to add an element here or bring in an element from another kind of game. My pitch slides always (ALWAYS) include a couple of slides along the lines of “Take the best of games like X, throw in a bit of what makes Deus Ex or Ultima great and you’ve got Warren’s New Game Idea.”

In other words, I look for ways to take things that frustrate me and fix them.

Sometimes, my frustration is with a game’s fiction, sometimes it’s with gameplay, sometimes it’s with an underutilized feature, sometimes it’s with an entire genre I think needs a kick in the rear. But, like the princess who can’t sleep because of the pea under her mattress, I can’t rest when I see something dumb in a game.

For example, as much as I love fantasy, and loved the world of Ultima, I couldn’t shake the feeling back in 1989 that fantasy was limiting us–commercially and creatively–and a more realistic, historical approach would help us tell cooler stories while reaching a larger, more diverse audience. “Why the heck don’t you use that great Ultima VI engine for something more broadly appealing, Richard?” I thought. The result was Martian Dreams — an Ultima-style historical science fiction adventure set in the Victorian era. (Okay, so I was wrong about reaching a larger audience with a non-fantasy Ultima title, but the spark that started the project was definitely frustration, not a desire to create a clean slate design…)

A couple of years later, Ultima VII came out — a perfectly fine game but one that didn’t seem “epic enough” to me (though, in retrospect, that’s clearly absurd!). From a technical and graphics perspective it was groundbreaking, but the player experience seemed old ate. The story and playstyle could have been better. Out of that frustration came Serpent Isle. (There was also the fact that Britannia was totally Richard Garriott’s world and anyone else trying to explore interesting ideas there had to face the inevitability of those dreaded words, “That would never happen in Britannia” or “Iolo would never do that!” Serpent Isle was born of frustration with that, too — I told the team we were going to create our own world, within the Ultima universe, so Richard could never say that stuff to us! But that’s a story for another time…)

Wings of Glory was sparked by a plane ride I took with Chris Roberts while he was working on Strike Commander. Here was his team of supergeniuses, creating the most amazing flight sim engine to date — best looking models, best looking terrain, a 3D cockpit you could actually look around to check your surroundings — and all he could think of to do with it was a jet fighter game?! That seemed ludicrous to me. Jets don’t really dogfight. They fight from a distance, guaranteeing you’d be too far from Strike Commander’s beautiful 3D models to see them… flying too high to marvel at the incredibly detailed terrain… relying on radar to spot far-off enemies, ensuring you’d never have any reason to look around the 3D cockpit. It was nuts. I was frustrated. From that moment, I had to do a WWI flight sim, so you could get up close and personal with beautiful slow-moving planes, fly low to the ground and marvel at the terrain, swivel around the cockpit straining to catch a glimpse of an enemy before he got the drop on you.

Deus Ex was completely a response to Thief. I remember sitting in meeting after meeting with the team, arguing that it was a bad idea to de-power players to force them to sneak and avoid combat. “What if I’m not good enough to sneak past a guard? Or I just want to bash a guy over the head once in a while?” I lost all those battles (and, the way Thief turned out, I was clearly in the wrong — the game rocked). However, those lost battles led me to a place where all I could think was, “I’ll show those guys. I’ll make a game where you can sneak, fight or talk your way past any problem.” The next four years were just details — the game was born out of intense frustration with Thief.

More recently, working with John Woo on the Ninja Gold movie concept, I was driven by frustration one two levels: First, the Hollywood/Game collaboration just never seemed to work right and, second, ninjas are always treated so stupidly, in such a juvenile manner. I saw an opportunity to address both of those problems. (That’s really about all I can say about this, other than to warn people not to draw too many conclusions about JPS’s activities from the published reports.)

This bringings us back to the here and now. If you recall , this all started with Paper Mario on the Wii (again, a fun enough game I’m not dissing!…) Paper Mario fed right into my perpetual frustration with games that lead players around by the nose, offering false choices, when they offer choices at all, offering players the opportunity to solve puzzles (exactly the same way every other player solves exactly the same puzzles). In other words, it’s a game that allows players to pass some time but not much more. And that drives me nuts. In fact, much as I love Mario and Zelda and platform action/adventure games and all, there’s not much that frustrates me more these days. So, of course, I’ve been playing them obsessively and (surprise!) we’re working on a concept at JPS that will help address my frustration — a concept driven, as always, by a weird combination of love and frustration for specific games.

I’m hugely motivated these days by my love of and frustration with Zelda, Mario and other games of that ilk. Clearly, part of the appeal of these games is the chance to immerse oneself in familiar worlds and familiar gameplay. And there’s something soothing about knowing there’s One Right Way to do things. But as appealing as that idea is, there’s danger in too much reverence for the past, and these games seem so mired in their history, so married to convention they kind of make me mad. Prettier pictures won’t maintain sales forever. Someone has to offer a different take on action/adventure gameplay — why not us here at JPS? The frustration is definitely building! And that means there’s a game coming… Man, I can’t wait to talk more about this, but I better stop before I get myself in trouble.

Back in the world of generalization…

Whatever the frustration that drives my creative urges, it’s always screaming frustration of some kind that drives me. Everything I do is a response to something, a dialogue with someone or something (even if the other party doesn’t know a thing about it!). For me, art requires something to push against — maybe even something I want to destroy. (I really did want to shame other developers with Deus Ex, to ensure they could never make a straight shooter or simple save-the-world RPG again without feeling a little embarrassed about it. You can decide if we succeeded or not…)

I need an “I’ll show them!” moment before I can muster the energy to devote three years of my life to something. As my lovely wife Caroline will gladly inform you, I go out of my way to find things to get worked up about, things to get mad about, things I think are stupid in games — things to react to. For me, right now, I’m reacting to stupid ninjas and conventional platformers, just as I reacted ten years ago (jeez, has it been that long?!) to conventional shooters (and “sneakers”), back in the days of Deus Ex.

This all leaves one big question, of course — 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. For now, though, I turn this over to you folks, ending with two questions:

First, I see other “reactive” designs out there (though I won’t name them, for fear of offending friends and colleagues who may not find the idea of being reactive, rather than more conventionally creative, all that appealing!). But that doesn’t mean you folks can’t name names. So what reactive designs do you see out there?

Second, what game types/styles/categories bug you, frustrate you, make you want to tear your hair out — which genres, in other words, do you think are ready for reaction and reinvention?

What Paper Mario Taught Me About Creativity and Why I Make the Games I Make

June 24, 2007

Last week, I mentioned that I had finished Paper Mario on the Wii and found the experience fun but frustrating. I guess the thing that frustrated me, specifically, was that I spent 25 hours of my life playing and at the end of that time, what did I have to show for it?

Was I a better person? Had I learned anything about myself, my family, my friends, my life, my work–anything? Sadly, the answer was “no.” I’d beaten every boss and solved ever puzzle exactly the way the designers intended. I’d switched in and out of a cool 3D mode, switched characters at just the right time and experienced a story of lovers reunited and a universe saved. But, mostly, I’d just sort of turned off my brain and killed some time. That’s it. End of story. And I’d never get that time back. I’d been diverted, but that was all.

Now, before anyone starts screaming, I’m not saying that everything has to be educational or personally or socially uplifting or anything like that. It’s okay just to “pass time.” I’m not even dissing Paper Mario (though I’m sure someone will take this as a rant against a pretty fun game…). What frustrates me is that Paper Mario is typical of so many platform games–nearly all games, when you get right down to it.

As developers, we almost never think about what games can do to enrich our players and, as players, we almost never encounter anything that informs us about the human condition. The audience certainly doesn’t seem to be clamoring for anything more than diversion. (I mean, the art director here at JPS has over 300 Pokemon in his Pokedex–I can’t even imagine investing that much time in something that offers so little in return!) There’s no other medium that routinely and without much self-reflection offers consumers so little.

Certainly there are books and movies and CD’s that don’t seem to offer much in the way of examination of the human condition, but even the most banal of products in those media offer insights into culture, into what we think is important and what isn’t. Games just aren’t like that. For the most part, games are all surface, no subtext. They’re about doing–they have to be about doing–but rarely about the WHY that drives the doing and even more rarely about the consequences of doing whatever it is you’re doing in the game.

So what does any of this have to do with me making games unlike a lot of the stuff I play (which was the topic last week and is still the topic I want to talk about this week)?

Well, this lack of subtext and significance is what I’m frustrated about these days–and frustration is, for me at least, the start of the creative process. (And if you think it’s easy sustaining a feeling of frustration over the three years or so it takes to get from seed idea to finished game, think again! I work hard to remain frustrated, as my friends will happily tell you.)

Playing Paper Mario started a thought process that brought me to the realization of just how frustration driven I am, professionally speaking, and that got me thinking about how different that is from what drives some other people I know.

I realized I’m a Reactive (or “editorial”) guy, creatively, not a Clean Slate guy. And I’m okay with that. Next week, I’ll talk about what I mean by reactive and clean slate, and why I’m okay with it…(Man, I did not expect this to turn into a public exercise in self-psychoanalysis… go figure.)