designerzord

By Sam Rosenthal

Nintendo's Software Problem

Well, this was unexpected.

 

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After announcing a price drop to its floundering Wii U and unveiling the bafflingly titled 2DS, Nintendo has curiously become the center of the tech sphere's attention.

Some argue that our methods of evaluating Nintendo are faulty, several say the company's strongest opportunity resides in Apple's ecosystem, while others simply wish to convince us that above all else they must change course.

Anyone who played the latest Animal Crossing, a game seemingly made for iOS but confined to the 3DS, can understand the appeal of Nintendo software running on Apple's hardware. However, I do not view a switch in hardware as the ultimate solution to Nintendo's woes. Hardware does not define Nintendo. Games do.

Nintendo's software problem is much more serious than their hardware problem, and it is a problem we tend to ignore. After all, they are still rolling out great Mario and Zelda games, right?

Sure, but they are resting on their laurels. I remember back in 2010 when the internet decisively declared Nintendo the winner of E3 (a completely meaningless accomplishment, but that's another story). While my little sister watched me read every glowing hyperbolic piece published after the conference, she finally said to me, "I don't get it."

"What don't you get?"

"Aren't these just the same games you've been playing for years?"

Yes, of course they are. Nintendo, like so many Japanese game companies, loves to prey on our nostalgia. The generation who grew up with their characters has developed a fervent admiration for the company, while their younger counterparts can only shrug, barely looking away from their iPads.

I watched Keiji Inafune lament the state of the Japanese games industry at GDC 2012, criticizing his peers' eagerness to sustain old brands rather than create new ones. While reskinning Mega Man may not be the proper solution, he certainly asked the right questions.

Nintendo asks, "what will Mario and Zelda look like on this new platform?" They should instead ask, "what can we create on this platform that we never could have imagined before?"

Imagination and surprise are always more exciting than the sustainability of an established brand. When Reggie Fils-Aime expressed frustration at his audience's insatiable appetite, he failed to recognize why his audience fell in love with Nintendo in the first place. No, it was not because of Mario, it was because of their constant stream of surprises and delights.

The Wii was a great surprise, a shot in the dark that reached an entirely different audience. But alas, it was a fad. Why?

In my eyes, Nintendo created only four pivotal titles for the Wii:

  • Wii Sports
  • Wii Fit
  • Super Mario Galaxy
  • The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword

We could argue on and on about what makes a "pivotal" title, but I essentially view a Nintendo pivotal title as one that sufficiently surprises and justifies its current hardware. Wii Sports and Wii Fit were casual titles that embraced the Wii's physical affordances. Nintendo somehow reimagined the Mario formula yet again with Galaxy's remote waggling, gravity-centric platforming, and Skyward Sword displayed how fairly accurate motion controls could effectively enhance an action experience.

The first two titles catered to Nintendo's newfound casual audience, while the latter two catered to their existing core fan base. Even with a paltry number of system defining titles, there was a dire need for an exciting middle ground between core and casual.

Instead, Nintendo phoned in another Mario Kart, another 2D Mario, a few Mario sports games, and little else. The Wii was Nintendo's promise of a revolution, but even they struggled to come up with new ideas to showcase its full potential.

It seems fitting then, that the title Nintendo is hoping to finally convince their fan base to buy the Wii U is an HD remake of a ten year old game. Déjà vu.

Meanwhile in the other corner, wholly original experiences are gracing every other platform, from developers both big and small. Yet Nintendo seems content living in the past. I often hear Nintendo compared to Disney (both place high value on characters), but there is an important distinction. Disney thrives on a constant supply of new, exciting franchises and characters, while Nintendo clings to the hope that theirs will continue to remain relevant.

The Nintendo classic Super Mario Bros was the first video game I ever played. I love it now as I loved it then, but I never imagined that over two decades after first playing, Nintendo would still be attempting to sell its latest iteration.

Here's hoping they have a few more tricks up their sleeves.

We Created Monsters

"Actions speak louder than words."

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I was reminded of the old idiom every time Joel dismembered a runner, stuck a shiv to a clicker, or burned another human being alive. Had I made a list of all the brutal actions I instructed the titular character to perform in The Last of Us, I hardly imagine I would have found a fraction of humanity beneath all the bloodshed.

You know where this is going, of course. Ludonarrative dissonance is the plague that infects the AAA game industry, and The Last of Us is its latest victim. The game does not go down easily, for Naughty Dog has come equipped with sharp writing and subtle character development that make March's victim, the beleaguered BioShock Infinite, appear timid in comparison.

The opening hours are harmonious enough. Despite an obvious ploy for the heartstrings, the story is introduced through delicate use of contextual actions, and early encounters sparsely supply ammunition. Enemies quickly overwhelm, and commanding John Marston to run and hide becomes a dominant strategy for survival. The feeling of weakness is fleeting, however, and predictably enough Soap MacTavish transforms into a one man tank capable of obliterating every living thing in his path.

Along for the ride is fourteen year old Ellie, whose relationship with Marcus Fenix anchors the impressively focused story. Like her protector Sam Fisher, she too turns more violent as the game progresses, and unsurprisingly becomes an ally combatant. Her secondary role as an echo for the player's thoughts is likely a bit more accidental. After the umpteenth time Lara Croft flings a pallet into the water and starts to instruct Ellie, she responds, "I know, step on the fucking pallet."

Here we find what David Cage was referring to when he made the controversial claim that "game mechanics are evil." The pallet mechanic was likely tossed in because it is reusable, shows off impressive technology, and breaks up the combat. On the other side, the combat was likely tossed in because it is a proven design, shows off impressive tech, and breaks up the pallet pushing. When viewed in a vacuum, the game's tried and true mechanics paint the portrait of a monstrous mass murderer with an affinity for ladders, pallets, and planks, thus the story is tasked with justifying their inclusion.

Naughty Dog is quite aware of their created dissonance, and have even attempted to justify it previously in Uncharted 2, with a short monologue from its antagonist:

"You think I am a monster. But you're no different from me, Drake. How many men have you killed? How many... just today?"

A quick trip to the statistics screens takes the mystery out of the number of men killed in The Last of Us, but Naughty Dog fares much better this time in their attempted justification. The final act of the game completes Max Payne's descent into an unadulterated killer, and his unspoken motives leave much room for thought. Does he place Ellie's life above the lives of countless others because he cannot bear the loss of another child? Is his ounce of remaining compassion a strength or a detriment to mankind? Or is it not compassion at all, and simply selfishness?

The questions are there, they are interesting to ponder, but they are there because Joel had to turn out this way, or else the story would be devoured in the absurdity of the mechanics. Neither The Road nor Children of Men, the contemporary works of fiction from which The Last of Us draws frequent inspiration, have to justify their protagonists' trail of bodies or even leave one at all. The mechanics of literature do not mandate it.

And yet here we are, with another game trying so hard to justify the role in which games always seem to ask us to play. Perhaps a greater achievement would be to create a different part.

"You monster," the doctor screams at me during the game's finale before I put one last bullet in her head.

I'm sorry, doctor. It's the only role I've ever known.

For Baltimore

4…3…2…1…

The final seconds vanish from the clock and the 49er's ball carrier is stopped in his tracks. I let out a joyous scream. They did it. The Ravens won the Super Bowl. The Baltimore Ravens. My Ravens.

The frenzied, Jim Harbaugh-esque state of insanity that takes over my usually calm personality during Ravens games is hard to explain in Southern California. The general feeling in Los Angeles after a Super Bowl victor is declared is one of apathy. Texts are exchanged about bet results while strategies begin to form for next year's fantasy season, but few share the joy felt by the winning team and their fans. Blame it on LA's lack of an NFL team, but I have always found the overall sports atmosphere here to be a bit off kilter. Fans love the teams when they are successful then abandon them when they lose, apparently deeming them unworthy of further attention. After all, LA has plenty of other worthwhile distractions.

I have never understood this attitude. I'm from Baltimore.

Almost everyone in Baltimore develops a feverish love for the Ravens after enough years of succumbing to their unavoidable presence. Purple banners stream from light-posts in the teenager filled Hunt Valley Towne Center, bird logos adorn the walls of every public place imaginable, and some Baltimoreans' entire wardrobes seem to exclusively consist of Ravens apparel.

Baltimore has long been a football city, and it has been a Ravens city for almost long as I have been alive. I was in elementary school when the Ravens went on their original Super Bowl run in 2000. The vice principal gave a brief synopsis of the previous playoff games during morning announcements, and the school faculty actually encouraged the students to wear purple every day for our scheduled "Ravens Weeks." During the family Super Bowl party we stuffed our faces with Bill Bateman's buffalo wings, a Baltimore classic, and excitedly watched the Ravens rout the New York Giants for their first Lombardi Trophy. The city was ecstatic.

After several years of stagnation the Ravens made some major changes, welcoming new leadership under former special teams coach John Harbaugh and rookie quarterback Joe Flacco, a first round draft pick from the University of Delaware. A few Baltimoreans were at first nervous about the new faces, but everyone ultimately rallied behind the team per usual. However, while the Ravens inevitably changed, Baltimore stayed mostly the same.

The inner city was always a place we were told to avoid, with a few exceptions like the tourist heavy Harborplace and M&T Bank Stadium of course. Fans of The Wire probably know as much about the grittier side of Baltimore as do the residents of Baltimore County's surprisingly segregated suburbs. My community was mostly Jewish, while the neighboring suburbs were predominantly composed of one or two ethnic groups - hardly a cultural melting pot.

The suburbs in Baltimore were fairly typical. We found ourselves with little to do on weekends during the football offseason, especially since we couldn't count on the Orioles for entertainment (although I'm sure that changed this year). I was fortunate enough to have a passion for video games and technology to keep myself busy, but boredom spread rampantly among my peers.

This narrative should seem familiar to anyone who grew up in a small American town, but Baltimore's pride in its football team created unusual opportunities for friendship.

My high school was full of the stereotypical cliques and cliches, yet through the Ravens we found common ground. I could discuss football with the artsy students and jocks alike - both wore purple jerseys on a regular basis. It took me some time to find my place in high school, but when I finally found a great group of friends we bonded each weekend over Ravens games. The games became a Sunday ritual that transformed the entire group from casual to diehard fans, and we haven't looked back since. Although we mostly communicate now through Twitter and text messages, The Ravens continue to bring us together today.

Baltimore may lack Los Angeles' endless sources of entertainment or New York's cultural diversity, but its pride in local heroes has infused it with a tremendous amount of heart. While some Baltimoreans happily live there forever and others like myself leave to pursue other ambitions, everyone maintains faith in an unspoken but fundamental idea: great things can come out of this place. Since 1996, the Ravens have been THE great thing. They are more than Baltimore's football team - they are the rallying point and motivational force in a city often deprived of greatness.

I wish I could have celebrated with you at the parade, Baltimore. You deserved this victory.

 

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Mr. Microsoft

I've read several posts from technology bloggers lately on their experiences at the new Microsoft Stores. Many encountered ill-informed Microsoft employees, but the employee I talked to at the flagship Times Square store was in a whole different league.

I was struggling immensely to type using the Surface's Touch Cover, and I thought part of the problem was that I couldn't find any trace of a system wide autocorrect feature. The employee next to me (we'll call him Mr. Microsoft) wasn't talking to anyone, so I asked him how to enable autocorrect. Mr. Microsoft first looked for the option in Word's menus, and when he failed to find one there he looked in the general system settings to no avail. He then replicated the problem, trying to input the word "the" which displayed "thr" on the screen.

Puzzled, Mr. Microsoft asked me, " that should say 'the' right?"

"I think so."

"I'm really not sure what to do. Well anyway what do you think of the Surface?"

I restrained myself from beginning a rant.

"You're asking the wrong guy. I prefer Apple products. Since you asked I think the form factor is awkward and I don't understand why the RT version has a desktop at all."

And then the unthinkable happened. The guy who is supposed to be selling the product agreed with me.

"Yeah I personally wouldn't buy one either."

It gets better. After a brief pause, Mr. Microsoft looked at me and said, "I mean I just have no use for one. I already have a MacBook Pro."

I was speechless, but it didn't stop there. He noticed the iPhone 5 in my hand.

"Hey are those still on back order? I've been trying to get one for weeks."

"Umm...I'm not sure," I said, double checking that his shirt did indeed say Microsoft.

"I bought mine through Verizon. If Apple is sold out you should try the carriers. Who is your carrier?"

"Well I got an unlocked 4S that I use on T-Mobile. I was planning to use my Microsoft discount to get an iPhone 5, but don't tell anyone!"

Whoops, sorry Mr. Microsoft.

I decided to push him a bit. "You should use that discount to get an iPad while you're at it."

He laughed.

"Nah that would just be obnoxious."

I asked him how sales of the Surface were, and he somehow still managed to criticize the product he was supposed to be selling with his answer.

"They're good, lots of demographics are buying it. People like it because it has Office. I mean even though it's sluggish and it's not the best tablet on the market, Office is a big deal for some people."

I thanked him for his help and left the store. He seemed like a genuinely nice guy, and very fortunate that none of his supervisors overheard our conversation.

Microsoft, you might want to double check that your sales people show just as much enthusiasm for your products as they do for your competition.

 

Flight & Payne

Tonight was a special night to be a USC School of Cinematic Arts student. The film screened in our Theatrical Film Symposium class was the marvelous Flight, starring Denzel Washington.  Our guest speaker was none other than director and USC alumnus Robert Zemeckis, whose name adorns the building where I have spent the vast majority of my college career.

Flight is a character study about addiction. After a heart pounding first act in the air, its pace becomes more measured as Denzel Washington's character is slowly consumed by the weight of his own lies about his substance abuse.

I couldn't help thinking back to another character study concerning addiction I experienced this year: Rockstar Games' Max Payne 3. I had some problems with the game when it was released, and tonight I was once again reminded just how wide the gap is between the expression of a serious subject in film and in games.

Max Payne 3 was not slow and measured, it was an unapologetic Rambo-esque romp. The aesthetics highlighted Payne's struggle with substance abuse, but his inner turmoil never found its way into the moment to moment play. I mowed down enemy after enemy without a thought. I was not Denzel, I was Stallone.

And there's the rub. The game may have meant to be about addiction, but in reality it was about killing people, like so many of its peers. Why do so many games start with noble ambitions but resort to asking the player to perform heinous tasks?

The only answer I have been able to come up with is that it is hard to sell a player on a serious subject without exciting moment to moment action. But you know what, the same goes for film, yet big studio films like Flight are still made.

As game designers I feel that we have a responsibility to join our aesthetics and mechanics in a cohesive package. They cannot be about different subjects, just as a film's direction and editing cannot tell different stories.

While I believe games capable of tackling serious subjects, Flight served as a painful reminder that here they have yet to take off.

 

Punch Quest's Monetization Problem

 Frederico Viticci wrote an interesting article today on Punch Quest's monetization problem, but I don't entirely agree with his angle.

His argument that customers value new content and features higher than consumables does not line up with customer behavior. While working on "Where's My Water?" we released two one-time purchase IAPs: Cranky's Story and Mystery Duck. One of the two was a resounding success, yet while "Where's My Water?" has a comfortable spot in the paid app charts, it doesn't generate nearly as much revenue as the top freemium games.

Take one look at the App Store's top grossing section. Every single top grossing game is supported by consumable IAPs.

So what went wrong with Punch Quest? In my opinion, the problem is not with its business model, but with its design.

First, there's the menus. They are really, really ugly, and quite hard to read. Pixel art is fine for your main game assets, but when trying to convey information to a player, dial it back a bit. Halfbrick found the right balance with Jetpack Joyride, displaying clean GUI elements on top of the pixel art game world. Additionally, I take issue with the language they chose to direct players to their up sell screen. What does "loot" mean to a casual iOS gamer? Once the player navigates to the loot screen, a button titled "get" directs them to the IAP screen. Get what?

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Second, average Punch Quest play sessions seem longer to me than other auto runners. The game uses an old school heart system rather than instant death, which decreases the player's perceived value of consumable power ups. I made it pretty far during my very first play session, and with five hearts, I felt that my chances of success were fairly high even without purchasing any power ups. Both Jetpack Joyride and Temple Run ramp up more quickly, thus the player feels more pressure to spend money on a helping hand.

Viticci cites Letterpress as an example of successful use of IAP. I love Letterpress, but do you see it in the top grossing? Letterpress is a classic example of confusing freemium with shareware, as Tadhg Kelly so wonderfully described. You can spend a maximum of $1 on Letterpress. Even with a high conversion rate of free to paid users, that is not a recipe for a hit.

Punch Quest did not confuse freemium with shareware, but it failed to clearly articulate to customers how or why to part with their money.

Chapter One

Honored to be featured alongside some of my greatest inspirations in this new video for the USC School of Cinematic Arts.

A huge thank you to director Cassie Brooksbank for including me in her work.

Why I Love Making Meaningful Entertainment

I'm currently leading one of USC's Advanced Games projects, and our goal is to create a game that has value in the real world beyond pure entertainment. I could dedicate dozens of blog posts to why I think meaningful content is essential to ensuring video games' transition from mindless entertainment to a widely respected form of expression, but today I want to share a few quick thoughts on why the creation of this kind of content is so fulfilling.

When making a game without meaningful content, whether it is a pure mechanics driven game with little story or an "epic" game sewed together by an incoherent story, it is not necessary to utilize much knowledge from the world we live in today. Sure, player behaviors must be studied in playtests to make sure the game's objectives and systems are properly sign posted, but this limited psychology is just about the extent of using current real world knowledge and experiences to solve game design challenges. Most game designers use other games as their primary research targets, or works in other mediums of the same genre or style.

At J.J. Abrams' WWDC talk, he told the audience that his dream was to attend USC for film school but his father persuaded him to pursue a liberal arts degree at a smaller institution instead, reasoning that without a well-rounded education J.J. would not have any subjects to make movies about. I wholly agree with this sentiment (although I believe USC offers an excellent well-rounded education) but I believe it works the other way as well. A well-rounded education influences meaningful entertainment, and the pursuit of meaningful entertainment influences a well-rounded education.

My attempts to bring meaningful content to games have made me a more intellectually curious person than ever before. My interest in all of my classes, from science to literature, has been dramatically heightened because I always discover a piece I can bring back into my current project. I read more, I inquire about subjects I traditionally had less of an interest in, and I am more engaged in my school work due its newfound relevance. Back in high school I saw little value in subjects outside my area of interest. Today I see value in all subjects, for I now know that one way or another they all fall within my area of interest.

 

College in the iPad Age

Today is my first day of my senior year at USC and I can hardly believe it!

Today is also the second time I have started a school year without paper textbooks.  Instead of a stuffed backpack I solely bring my iPad to class, loaded with all of my notes, textbooks, class schedules, and so on so forth.  I entered college with a stuffed backpack and I am leaving with a tiny tablet as my primary tool for education.  What a remarkable world we live in.

While it is refreshing that most textbooks and course readings are available digitally, I do wish the digital distribution of these books was a little more elegant.  Most are priced similarly to their physical counterparts (something Apple is hoping to solve) and are still a pain to locate.  While we no longer have to aimlessly wander the halls of our school bookstore, we still have to find each book individually and ensure that we have the proper edition.

I hope for solution in which schools and book sellers are more closely intertwined.  Imagine if e-book sellers (Apple, Amazon, etc.) offered a way for professors to create book lists based on their course requirements.  The sellers could then distribute codes to the professors that the professors would then distribute to their students to purchase the entire bundle of e-books at a discounted price.  Ultimately it may even increase textbook sales since a) the convenience of e-book bundles would lead to more impulse buys from students and b) e-book sales cannibalize the used book sales market.

Anyway, these are just a few high level concepts I was toying with this morning while preparing for class.  Let me know what you think!

Mass Effect 3

 

I am trying out a more short form blogging style so that

A) I will update my blog more frequently

B) I can cut down on my Twitter rants

Let's see how it goes!

I began playing Mass Effect 3 a few days ago, and I am still near the beginning after about four and a half hours of play time. As is usually the case with the third iteration of a franchise, the gameplay systems seem to have been impressively sharpened. The once lowly combat system is a kinetic thrill to engage, and the two sides of the once binary morality system have been placed on the same meter so that decisions of morality are reflective of the player as opposed to the reward structure. Welcome improvements indeed.

Yet Mass Effect's appeal to its audience always chiefly resided in its unique approach to storytelling as opposed to pitch perfect gameplay systems. While its peers used science fiction as a wrapper for games of mindless destruction, Mass Effect was distinct in its eagerness to allow the player to directly interface with its fiction, whether through the dialogue wheel it originally pioneered or through exploration and eavesdropping. For many players, including myself, this distinction was revelatory.

To this day I am still unsure if the series consistently has better writing most blockbuster franchises or simply more of it. In its initial moments Mass Effect 3 ushers in the most familiar conflict for games that aspire to be epics, a doomsday scenario. The game heavy handily asks it audience to become emotionally invested in its end of all days in space plot, showing gloomy depictions of civilian death and despair at the hands of their otherworldly tormentors, but I can hardly think of a scenario more far removed from reality. Without a theme grounded in reality, the player has nothing to hold on to as the roller coaster ride of a game takes off.

Part of the problem comes from BioWare's early decision to give the avatar a voice. In most Western role playing games the protagonist is little more than a silent shell to imprint your own story upon in the game world. This age old approach led to years of clunky storytelling, but BioWare's proposed solution does little to solve the problem. In order to compensate for the multitude of different player personalities that must be catered to with their avatar, they created a protagonist entirely devoid of personality. We are asked to believe that he/she is a tormented soul in this final installment, which is a lot to ask considering Shepherd has shown little to no emotion for two 30+ hour installments.

A little slack must be given to BioWare, as conclusions to science fiction stories are difficult to create. Part of science fiction's appeal comes from the sense of wonder and questions it inspires. BioWare has the difficult task of instilling that sense once again, while neatly wrapping up its plot intricacies. The level of detail in each location is just remarkable, and at this early point in the game it is clear that they have surpassed even their own lofty standards as far as world building goes. The most interesting stories in Mass Effect 3 seem come from what you discover in these diverse locations at your own leisure.

For all of the criticism I direct toward games that use aliens and far fetched scenarios as their basis rather than ideas grounded in reality, I genuinely enjoy the science fiction genre when it is treated with care and respect. Mass Effect may be the only contemporary interactive science fiction that makes any attempt to do so, and I do hope its effort does not go unnoticed by the juggernaut publishers.

I played the original game during my freshman year of college. Like so many of my generation, I had all but lost faith in organized religion and was searching for answers on my own. When my version of Shepherd inquired to the reaper Sovereign on the reaper's origins, BioWare's writers offered an interesting idea.

Sovereign:

"We have no beginning. We have no end. We are infinite. Millions of years after your civilization has been eradicated and forgotten, we will endure. There is a realm of existence so far beyond your own, you cannot even imagine it. I am beyond your comprehension."

The idea that their are forces, beings, things out there beyond human comprehension is one the central principles of agnosticism. It does not reject the belief in the unknown, but it also does not attempt to define it.

Just like the very best of science fiction.

Why "Because We May" Matters

Hey all,

I am thrilled to end my overly long blogging hiatus with an entry on an ongoing event that I fully support. On May 24th, an enormously large amount of indie games were discounted as part of the Because We May sale, which celebrates developer control over pricing. From the website:

"We believe that developers should have the freedom to price their games how they like, without interference from the online stores that sell the games. Why? Because it allows us to promote our games more freely, as we are doing here! We rely on the ability to promote our games for our livelihood and control over pricing is an important tool for this purpose."

The importance of the idea of developer controlled pricing cannot be understated, for it is the key to a successful transition to digital distribution for both developers (independent AND triple A) and consumers alike. I am a firm believer in digital distribution, but until this model becomes the de facto standard it will always face consumer backlash and games will be creatively inhibited.

Mandated price points are among the largest creative inhibitors that exist in the video game industry today, and unsurprisingly they are found chiefly in the hapless console market. Console games have traditionally relied on retail for sales, where the console manufacturer essentially dictates a price point for all new games. I am sure most of you will remember just a few years ago when consumers nationwide were baffled that games would now cost sixty dollars. Think for a minute about the absurdity of the idea. All new games, regardless of content, length, or quality, would cost sixty dollars. Inevitably, this led to a creative drought in the triple A game industry where developers endlessly padded their games with recycled ideas and unnecessary content to match the consumer expectations of a sixty dollar game. When most consumers go to a GameStop or Best Buy with sixty dollars to purchase a game, they expect high production values, a minimum of eight hours of gameplay, and usually prefer a multiplayer component. Consumers are paying a high price point and thus they expect the most bang for the buck, and in absentmindedly imposing this price mandate on the majority of retail games console manufacturers are squashing the creative potential of big budget games.

The current generation of consoles also gave way to the first console digital storefronts in PSN, XBLA, and WiiWare, but consle manufacturers did little more than slap the retail pricing model onto digital. They retained total control of digital pricing, somehow coming to the conclusion that these experiences should sell for around $10-15. While the prices are lower, the same inihibitors are still present, now influencing consumer judgments over the proper length and feature set of a downloadable title. Additionally, console manufacturers do little to keep up with their growing library of digital games, often neglecting to discount titles years after their initial release. A developer or publisher with a small library of games is unable discount at will, whether for generosity's sake or for promoting their new games. Take a look at Super Meat Boy, which I just purchased on Steam as part of the Because We May sale for five dollars. The game launched originally on XBLA in October of 2010 as part of a Microsoft sponsored sale for 10 dollars, rising to its normal 15 dollar price point in November of that year, where it has remained ever since. In similar act of greed, Sony has taken to offering digital versions of retail games for identical or sometimes higher price points to their physical counterparts. By restricting price points to their own demands rather than allowing developers and publishers to directly respond to consumer expectations, their first foray into an all digital ecosystem with the PSPgo was an abysmal failure, and its successor is well on its way to keep their track record intact.

As for Because We May's celebrated havens (the App Store, Steam, etc), they offer a step in the right direction. Some suffer from an endless well of games with little curation, but that is slowly starting to change. The iOS App Store saw an unexpected trend in racing to the minimum price, 99 cents, to obtain widespread adoption. This trend allowed the 99 cent price point to become synonymous with casual games, while other price points offered different types of experiences, many of which can be found as part of the Because We May Sale. While it is often advantageous to hardware makers, such as Apple, to enforce some restrictions on developers to strenghten their overall digital ecosystem, pricing is certainly not among them. An ecosystem's strenghth rests largely on the ease and safety of acquiring content, in addition to the quality and diversity of content available to purchase. The latter is always best obtainable with developer freedom of price control.

What would BioShock 2 have been like if 2K set the price themselves? Would it have contained its multiplayer component, which many described as an afterthought? Would it have been $60? $40? Would 2K discount it now to promote BioShock Infinite? What about a game like Castle Crashers? I would like to think that they would have been priced proportionally to the content the developer created to enhance the artistry of the game, rather than to meet sales expectations at a mandated price point. Games are not like movies, where tickets prices can be set to consumer expectations of the standard runtime. They come in all shapes and sizes, and need a pricing structure to support the freedom to continue as such.

If you support the only plausible future for digital distribution, I highly encourage you to pick up one of the many spectacular games on sale this weekend. If you are vehemently opposed to the cause, you will likely have a blast playing these titles nonetheless!

 

Burning the Rule Book

 "We need to forget about video game rules — bosses, missions, game over, etc...are very old words of a very old language."

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David Cage’s talk at this year’s GDC garnered two types of reactions: thunderous applause and bellowing groans. The latter was the sound of seasoned game developers, fearful of the drastic changes that the creator of Heavy Rain suggested. The applause mostly came from a younger generation of game developers, sick of derivative game experiences and hungry for the interactive medium to live up to its full potential.

Heavy Rain is my Game of the Year for 2010.

There were games in 2010 that were more polished in Heavy Rain, there were games that were prettier, there were games that controlled better, and there were even games with a better story. However, Heavy Rain served a far more important purpose than its shortcomings might suggest. Heavy Rain was a wake up call.

Since its inception, the games industry has focused all of its attention on a single audience: adolescent males. While this audience has done a terrific job supporting the growth of video games, we cannot allow them to become the medium’s life support. Perhaps David Cage’s most uncomfortable claim in his GDC talk was that despite all of their success, video games are still a niche. While other forms of media are enjoyed and appreciated by virtually everyone, games continue to appeal to a specific type of people.

“Make games for adults. Seriously, it’s going to change your life.”

Heavy Rain is not a “gamer’s game.” It does not feature a single dragon or space marine, and rarely does the player hold a weapon. Instead of an epic adventure, David Cage and the folks at Quantic Dream crafted a far more personal experience.

The setup is simple. A serial killer known as “The Origami Killer” kidnaps the son of Ethan Mars. While Ethan searches for his missing son, the killer puts him through a series of trials to test his will. Three other characters, an investigative journalist, an FBI profiler, and a private detective, become entangled in the mystery. The game’s own tagline, “how far will you go to save someone you love,” reflects its tendency to present the player with increasingly pressing choices. The story is more or less authored by the player, as the choices that they make alter the events of the game, and there is an incredible amount of ways that the story can pan out. Even if one of the four main characters dies, the story adapts and continues without them. This form of interactive storytelling is undoubtedly unique, although player-authored experiences are becoming more commonplace.

"The journey is what matters, not the challenge. Challenge works well with teenagers...but it doesn't work with adults."

What sets Heavy Rain’s approach apart is how it merges storytelling and challenge. Nearly every definition of “game” will include some word synonymous with “obstacle,” yet because Heavy Rain has no failure state, traditional gamers may have a hard time discovering where the challenge lies. Quantic Dream converted the challenge from physical to mental. Sure, the game still prompts the player to perform quick button presses on occasion, but it never punishes the player for failure to do so. Instead, Heavy Rain provides a constant barrage of choices that require careful contemplation. If you must kill a man to save your son, but he is a father as well, what is the best course of action? The man I refer to is not a “boss,” and he can be killed with one button press. However, this moment proved to be more challenging for many players, including myself, than any physical challenge a traditional boss fight could possibly present.

The lack of a failure state also means that the only reward or punishment for an action is the consequence in the story. If a character dies they do not respawn, they are simply dead. This consequence is not punishment, but most players wish to avoid it because of their attachment to the characters. I personally felt a much deeper connection the characters in Heavy Rain than any other modern video game simply because I knew that my failure would lead to their deaths. I have played many exceptional story-driven video games, but Heavy Rain was the first to make feel responsible for the characters I controlled.

"I don't know how to tell a good story when your hero can only shoot and run."

One of David Cage’s strongest points in his GDC talk reflected on how difficult it is to tell a story using only ten verbs, yet game developers continue to limit the protagonist’s actions to the number of available buttons on the controller. All of the interactions in Heavy Rain are contextual, meaning that the functions of the controller’s buttons change based on what is happening in the game. The X button could at one moment be used to pick up a newspaper, and at another moment be used to fire a gun. The contextual controls feel liberating, and actions feel more meaningful because they make sense given the context and are not constantly repeated. This approach is by no means the only solution to interactive storytelling, but it is a gigantic leap forward in the right direction. When it comes down to it, Heavy Rain puts the “interactive” back in interactive storytelling.

“Is it a video game? Who cares?”

It is almost ironic to hear many critics of Heavy Rain dismiss it as an “interactive movie,” considering that unlike it the majority of its peers it does not rely on cinema techniques to tell its story. There are no cutscenes to break up the action and passively inform the player of what is going on. It also does not make use of any editing principles, instead allowing the player to role-play as much as they see fit. The game does not force the player to microwave a pizza, but it is an available action for those that want to create a more elaborate and believable play space.

Critics seem to have a hard time figuring out just what exactly Heavy Rain is. It does not follow a traditional video game formula, and therefore there is much debate on whether or not it is a video game at all. David Cage is not concerned on whether or not his game meets our definition of a video game, and we should not be either. Frankly I wish more “games” pushed the boundaries as much as Heavy Rain. Whatever Heavy Rain is categorized as, it is the start of something exciting and new for interactive media, and a call to action for fellow game developers. This medium will not survive unless changes are made and the audience is expanded.

Games need to be made for everyone. Time to wake up.

"We need to evolve to face competition, to expand our market, and to become a meaningful medium for all audiences.”

See below for commentary by Chris Baker, my supervisor at Marvel Studios


Lessons From The White Stripes

A bomb dropped today. The White Stripes are no more.

While I am still reluctant to believe that my favorite band is dead and gone, rather than write an obituary I’ll share what this remarkable duo has taught me since I first bought one of their records in junior high. I consider The White Stripes to be among my greatest mentors, and their ideals and mythology will stay with me forever. Without further ado, here’s what I have learned from The White Stripes.

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Never Hide Behind Technology

There’s a reason that Jack White uses a cheap plastic guitar in The White Stripes, and it isn’t because it’s an advanced piece of equipment. Over the last couple of decades bands found new ways to change and distort their music using an assortment of fancy effects, and for the most part they only succeeded in masking an inherently shallow sound. The White Stripes never fiddled with any of these effects, and instead kept their sound raw, pure, and unaltered. They stripped rock down to its bare essentials, but they made sure those essentials were damn good.

Technological advancements have been used to hide crap in virtually every artistic medium. Take Michael Bay's movies for example: no matter how impressive they look, they will never have soul. Plenty of blockbuster video games today can easily delight players with their graphics, but have a hard time pretending that they are not repackaged versions of games we’ve already played. I’m not saying that we cannot use technology to enhance art, but The White Stripes taught me that we should never create the skin before we create the bones.

There Are No Limitations

You can’t have a band with no bass. You can’t have a band without a skilled drummer. You can’t have a band with only two people. We’ve heard it all before. The White Stripes’ unique setup does not limit, it enables. Nobody before the The White Stripes sounded anything like them, and I’m willing to bet that nobody ever will. They’re so simple that they almost sound childlike, yet at the same time they sound more genuine than virtually every other band in existence.

The White Stripes taught me to always embrace what I’m given, and it feels refreshingly free to live life without the fear of being limited. Rather than feeling incompetent in a tough situation, it is better to approach it as a unique challenge that will prove to be a valuable pursuit. To better relate this concept to games and entertainment, take a look at those that have found success on iPhone. Some developers feel limited by the lack of buttons on the device, and thus plaster virtual buttons all over the screen to compensate for this perceived limitation. The more inspired developers use the touch screen to enable them to create experiences that could never have worked with a conventional controller.

Preparation is Overrated

The White Stripes play with no set list. They come out on stage with as much of an idea of what will happen as the fans that paid to see them. The result is true performance. I saw Arcade Fire play at Madison Square Garden over the summer, and although I’m a huge fan of them, their entire set reeked of over rehearsal. At one point, the drum machine malfunctioned in the middle of a song, and the band decided to start from the beginning. This would never happen at a White Stripes show. If something isn’t the way it should be, the duo finds away to create a different but equally interesting sound. Jack often performs without even tuning his guitar but manages to produce such a startlingly unique sound that audiences rarely even notice.

While it’s never a good idea to underprepare for a matter of importance, I learned from The White Stripes that nothing of interest comes through sheer memorization. I often see students prepare for job interviews by manufacturing their own answers that they can recite should the corresponding question come up. To prepare for an interview I normally just make sure I know what the company and position entails, and in the actual interview I act the same way I always do when discussing my passion. It’s my way of making sure I always sound genuine and not artificial. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but I never once have felt underprepared, or worse, over rehearsed.

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Always Struggle

The White Stripes go out of their way to struggle, even if the struggle is artificial. It’s their way of ensuring that they are always pushing themselves. In the documentary film It Might Get Loud, Jack White talks about how he keeps his bench far enough from his piano so that he must lunge forward to reach certain keys. He calls ease of use “the disease you have to fight in any creative field,” and this refusal to simplify the creative process causes his passion to bleed through all of his work.

When working in creative arts, it is always tempting to find the simplest solution to a given problem, especially given the amazing technology we have to assist us. The simplest solution is rarely the best, however, and hard work is always evident in the final product. Take Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light, a game I nominated for Game of the Year. The simple solution for developer Crystal Dynamics would have been to create another Tomb Raider game in the same vein as their last three with new levels and a few fresh mechanics here and there. Instead, they created a game completely unlike anything the franchise had seen before, while preserving the core platforming and shooting elements that made the franchise fun to begin with. Just like The White Stripes, they forced themselves to operate outside of their comfort zone, and created what is in my opinion their best work yet.

Passion is Greater Than Proficiency

Jack White is an incredibly gifted guitar player, but not because he always hits the right note. Meg White’s drumming gives the band heart along with rhythm, but not because she’s a talented drummer. The duo’s phenomenal chemistry is a result of smothering each of their imperfections with an incredible amount of passion. Jack White doesn’t always play the best possible note on the fret board, but whatever note he picks is played so vivaciously that it becomes the perfect choice.

Our generation is so obsessed with perfection that proficiency in a craft is almost always valued more than approaching it with passion. It’s passion, however, that turns a craft into an art. One of my favorite films of the year was Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan. In the film, Natalie Portman plays a technically proficient ballerina that lacks the passion mandated by the role of the Black Swan. No matter how much she obsesses over every minor detail, she cannot lose herself in the craft. The White Stripes have never lacked this ability. When they are on stage, the rest of the world does not exist. They exert beautiful, raw power with each step and misstep alike. They are proficient enough to compel, but passionate enough to astonish.

The White Stripes are more than just a band. The White Stripes are an entity, a set of ideals that act as guidelines for a successful life disguised as a two-piece rock band. They may no longer play together or record new music, but lessons that they have taught me will stay with me for the rest of my life. The White Stripes left us with this final note:

“The White Stripes do not belong to Meg and Jack anymore. The White Stripes belong to you now and you can do with it whatever you want. The beauty of art and music is that it can last forever if people want it to. Thank you for sharing this experience. Your involvement will never be lost on us and we are truly grateful."

Thank you, Jack and Meg, for creating this experience for us. You rekindled the flame in rock ‘n’ roll, and your love and passion lit a fire inside of each and every one of your fans. Goodbye White Stripes, I will never forget you.

 

A Journey Diluted

Pick up a copy of the original Mass Effect today and you will see a quote from The New York Times on the front cover, declaring it as “a landmark of interactive storytelling.” The original game was deeply flawed, but its ambitious approach to narrative development allowed for conversations to feel natural and for choices to feel impactful. I consider Mass Effect to be one of the most important games of the decade, a science fiction epic that matches spectacle with a story and cast of characters that you can hardly help falling in love with. In a market oversaturated with science fiction games that encourage players to shoot first and ask questions later, Mass Effect was a welcome change of pace.

 

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Released last January, Mass Effect 2 is a stunning game that improves upon the gameplay of its predecessor in every way, yet fails to leave as strong of an impression. Most of the changes are welcome, although many are refinements of features introduced in the first rather than new additions. Everything from combat to inventory management has seen an overhaul, and the irritating driving sections from the first are nowhere to be found. The changes to combat, one of the original game’s weakest points, are the most profound, turning it into an altogether thrilling experience. Some of the new inclusions are questionable, such as the tedious planet scanning minigame, and BioWare has yet to figure out how to create a responsive cover system. The most impressive inclusion is the ability to import your character from the first Mass Effect. This allows players continue their own story, with each decision made in the first carrying over to the second. The ability to see and act upon the consequences for your previous actions makes Mass Effect 2 one of the most personal games ever created.

Conversing with the many inhabitants of the galaxy is as engrossing as ever, although the Paragon/Renegade morality system, which was barely acceptable in the first Mass Effect, is even more obtrusive here. The first game more or less associated Paragon choices with "following the rules" and Renegade choices with "doing what was necessary", but in Mass Effect 2 Paragon clearly means good and Renegade clearly means evil. This is made all too apparent by the way Shepard, the game’s protagonist, physically changes based on the player’s choices. The designers get to choose which choice is good and which is evil, rather than allowing the player to cast judgment. Worse, by rewarding the player for high scores in either Paragon or Renegade, it is never advisable to take the middle ground. This is a problem found in almost all games with morality systems, yet BioWare corrected it in Dragon Age: Origins, its previous effort, by simply not assigning values to choices. It was up to the player to decide which choice was best, and the only reward was the consequence. To see Mass Effect 2 revert to a substandard use of morality is more than disappointing, it's almost unforgivable.

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The musical score leaves a lot to be desired, but the sound design is absolutely phenomenal, providing the weapons and powers of the future with enough kick to make them believable. When using the new Vanguard charge ability, Shepard’s mass effect fields make a sharp, slithering sound, which evolves into a thunderous boom upon impact. It’s a joy to be heard, and is the icing on the cake in the game’s many spectacular combat sequences. Coupled with BioWare’s always amazing voice acting (Martin Sheen is terrific as the Illusive Man), this is a game best played with the volume up high. The art direction is perhaps even more impressive, trumping nearly every other game released this year in both scope and execution. From the warm, seductive colors of the futuristic nightclub Afterlife, to the cool, clean interior of your own ship, each area is given a personality of its own.

The sheer amount of content in Mass Effect 2 is staggering. The folks at Bioware created an endlessly absorbing galaxy full of oddities waiting to be explored. Side quests finally feel like substantial additions to the game, eavesdropping on conversations in major cities is endlessly enjoyable, and with each new planet comes exciting new stories to be told. Unfortunately, much of the exploration is mandated by loyalty quests, which make up the vast majority of the play experience. BioWare opted for a much larger cast of characters this time around, and these loyalty quests are their way of allowing the player to learn more about each individual character. The loyalty quests as a whole feel rather forced, and after recruiting an entire team and then running across the galaxy to satisfy each and every team member, it is easy to forget that anything more important is at stake. By forcing loyalty quests upon the player, the structure of the game becomes transparent while the overarching plot becomes less of a concern.

The game design becomes transparent in areas beyond its core structure as well. Combat is always part of the main missions, thus I often found myself groaning when the characters awkwardly pretended that I would not have to pull out my gun for once, only to discover that lo and behold, I have to kill some enemies. Many of the missions that were engrossing on their own were spoiled by the predictable and needless inclusion of combat. One of the side missions that involved exploring a ship on the edge of a cliff was one of the game’s highlights, solely because its exclusion of combat was a refreshing change. Additionally, nearly every battle is given away by countless cover objects and arena-like rooms long before the player has a chance to even reach them, which completely eliminates the element of surprise.

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When the game is at its best, the result is sublime. Each encounter with the mysterious Collectors is more intense and heart pounding than the last, and each gives way to fascinating story revelations. The final mission is unforgettable, especially since the player is given a degree of control over who makes it out alive. Despite my problems with the loyalty quests, the ones that stand out are rather spectacular. Whether you are discussing politics with Quarians, learning about the Krogan rite of passage, or even playing mind games with an Asari, there is never a dull moment. It is also worth noting that the two downloadable characters, Zaeed Massani and Kasumi Goto, are both fantastic additions. The Kasumi DLC is short and is not free, but it is well worth the price for one of the game’s most memorable missions and characters.

Mass Effect 2 is an unquestionably great game marred by an exceptionally unimaginative structure. The result is a galaxy that is more satisfying than ever to explore, but a game that lacks the heart and soul of its predecessor. This is a series that soars when the player delves further into its backstory out of sheer curiosity, not when forced by the game design. With characters and locales as compelling as those found in Mass Effect 2, it is doubtful that many players would decide against further character development had it not been forced upon them. In fact, the original did not sacrifice a consistently strong plot to force character development, yet managed to give way to far deeper character development than its sequel. Hopefully with their final installment, BioWare will let go of our hands and let us interact with our team on our own terms while saving the galaxy as we see fit.

 

Portability is Back

The first consumer oriented laptops were created to combine the multiple hardware components needed for a standard desktop computer into a single portable unit. The PC industry has been dominated by desktops since the very beginning, and laptops were long accepted as compact but decidedly less functional machines to be used in conjunction with the desktop. It was standard practice to use a desktop as a primary computer and a laptop as a secondary computer while traveling. Unsurprisingly, consumers found the laptop’s inability to perform as competently as the desktop quite irritating, and for what seemed like eternities, hardware companies pushed to close the gap between the desktop and the laptop in terms of overall performance. For the most part, they succeeded, as many laptops that can be purchased today perform just as well as their desktop counterparts. However, in the push to equalize desktops and laptops, the most important differentiator between the two types of computers, portability, was all but lost.

Take for example Toshiba’s attractively named Qosmio X505-Q894 laptop. It’s undoubtedly a capable machine, with 4GB of DDR3 memory, a 500 GB hard drive, a NVIDIA GeForce graphics card, a BluRay player, and a whopping 18.4” screen. If you couldn’t care less about the majority of these features, don’t be alarmed, as Toshiba’s target audience for this machine is probably smaller than the laptop itself. Here’s what you do care about: the machine weighs over ten pounds and has less than four hours of battery life. Portability was obviously not one of Toshiba’s main concerns.

What do you think weighs more, the kid or the laptop?

What do you think weighs more, the kid or the laptop?


None of the features in the Qosmio X5-whatever would seem out of place in a desktop computer or even in a video game console, but they have no business being in a portable computer. The internet has become the primary source of our daily computing activities, and quick access to the internet does not require a 18.4” screen. If I had to guess, most consumers probably only use their computer’s word processor and internet browser on a daily basis. A company called Asus came to the same conclusion when they launched their extraordinarily successful line of Eee PC netbooks, which generally have around 10 inch screens, over ten hours of battery life, and will cost you less than $400. They won’t run StarCraft II on the highest settings, but for many consumers they are satisfactory.

Even though my MacBook Pro is only two years old, the developments over the past two years have made it seem like somewhat of a relic. I will not criticize the laptop’s performance, it still is unbelievably fast and responsive, but with its 15-inch screen and nearly six-pound weight, it’s a pain to lug around. Compare this to Apple’s recent MacBook Air that has an 11-inch screen, weighs just over two pounds, and is less than 0.7 inches thick. The Air is not a netbook like the Eee PC, it is a fully functioning Mac that can run the vast majority of current software, but its arguably most remarkable feat is the omission of needless features. The Air does not have a CD drive, given that physical CDs are quickly becoming a thing of the past. The Air does not have a hard drive, given that a hard drive’s many moving parts are impractical for a portable computer. It uses the faster flash memory instead, and even though the Air stores far less data than the Toshiba monster, in all honesty it no longer matters. Data is moving away from our hard drives and into the cloud thanks to products like MobileMe and Dropbox, which are each worthy of blog posts of their own.

The MacBook Air and the iPad

The MacBook Air and the iPad

After all this talk on how laptops evolved into Godzilla-sized entertainment centers and then into something that can actually fit into a backpack, it is time to have a look at what might be the most monumental change to portable computing, well, ever. Apple introduced the world to tablets with the iPad just last year, and while it was not the first tablet ever released, it was the first practical one. Much like the iPhone, Apple’s competitors first denounced the device then further legitimized it by introducing tablets of their own. The iPad provides the two basic needs of computing, the word processor and access to the internet, while giving users an entirely new and exciting way to access their content.

The large touch screen display eliminates the barrier between the user and the content by requiring the much more direct user interaction. Flipping through a PDF on the iPad mimics the feel of flipping through a physical document, which is much more natural and intuitive than massaging the down arrow key. Another one of the iPad’s distinct advantages can be found in the plethora of apps. Like the Eee PC, the iPad also cannot run StarCraft II at the highest settings, but it can be used to play original and compelling games tailor made for the device. Blizzard may not know whether StarCraft is being played on a desktop or a laptop, but App Store developers know that their games are being played on a portable device and thus design them to be easily accessible on the go. Aside from playing games, the iPad can be used to stream movies, to tune a guitar, to manage financial statements, to read a newspaper, and so much more. All in all, it’s a more natural way to interact with content, and a more portable and cheaper way as well.

It took years, but finally we have realized that laptops are not desktops and should not attempt to be so. We added useless features, then removed them, then got rid of the remaining features we thought we needed (see: the keyboard). Desktops are becoming increasingly rare in this day and age, a sure sign that we need our content to be with us everywhere we go. The only question is: how will we take it with us? The laptop has long been the sole solution, but the rise of the tablet has paved the way for a whole new form of device to take its place. I cannot predict which device, if either, will win out down the road or if another will come to take the world by storm, but never has their been a more exciting time for portable computing. For the first time, our portable computers are truly meant to be portable.

 

See

Hey everyone,

A few weeks ago I made a prototype for my 482 class, and I can't believe that I have yet to post it on my blog. The prototype is called See, and it is an exploration of violence in interactive entertainment. My inspiration for the prototype came from Brenda Brathwaithe's IndieCade keynote. One line of her talk stood out to me in particular: "Where there is human-on-human tragedy, there is also a system." It is almost sickening to break down a tragic event into formal procedures and elements, but it can always be done. Video games have proven to be particular adept at creating entertaining interactive systems around the backdrop of war and tragedy, but the tragedy of the event is usually hidden behind mountains of positive feedback. Did you really think about the implications of modern warfare when you were on your last kill streak in Call of Duty?

I could write pages on why I chose to make this prototype and why I will most definitely continue to work on it in the future, but I will leave that for now and encourage you to play it for yourself. It is not perfect, in fact, 99% of the time it fails to properly communicate its message. However, the 1% of the time it worked was rewarding enough to warrant further revision. I will post my next revision of See as soon as it gets done.

Please leave your feedback in the comments section of this page. Here's the feedback that my instructor, Peter Brinson, gave me. Like most of the feedback I received, it was tremendously helpful.

"You have a nice visual mood and I like the contrast of text and voice. Rather than giving us a thorough 'about' page I would brainstorm a really good title for the game that essentially achieves the same goal. And the MLK quote may be too much...you could be more concise with these opposing 'voices'. The use of light is a great take on the assignment.
The sound design is both great and bad. The parts where people say "enough", "i have a daughter" is a good try but people are going to laugh. Again, you can be more minimal.
I know Brathwaithe called her work a prototype or experiment or whatever, but she shouldn't qualify it and you should just let yours be a project.
One of the strongest parts is the connection you're making between games and war. It's in the foreground of games today (and the American experience) so that comes out easily, with just the gun and voice commands to the soldier. I like the music and the MLK speech, but not the quote at the beginning. I like where the sound design went when I waited and didn't kill many guys.
And keep making projects. Finding the right balance with serious subjects in terms of the subtle and the overt is hard. Just because it is serious doesn't mean there can't be some levity with the overall tone."

You can download See here.

Cop Block!

I wanted to share one of my favorite projects that I worked on in Game Design Workshop this semester. This one's a board game called Cop Block that's played entirely with Legos.  If you have the right Lego pieces laying around (as game designers, you probably do), try it out!

Cop Block Rules

 

Blasting in to the Magic Circle

“Play begins, and at a certain moment, it is “over.”  It plays itself to an end.  While it is in progress all is movement, change, alteration, succession, association, separation.”

In describing the nature of play, Dutch historian Johan Huizinga used the term “magic circle” to describe the space in which play takes place.  During play, the magic circle contains the actual setting (i.e. the tennis court in a game of tennis), in addition to the associated actions and vocabulary (i.e. a double fault).  The magic circle is the boundary between the real and the imaginary, and is a defining element of games as a whole.

I believe that our traditional methods of playing video games do a poor job of allowing entry into the magic circle.  When playing a game on a console, the player must set aside the time and space for play.  After the initial decision to play a video game, the player must turn on their television, turn on their console, turn on their controller, switch to the proper input, grab the game from their shelf, place the disc in the console, navigate the main menus, wait for the game to load, wait for the splash screens to fade away, navigate the game’s menus, and finally begin to play.  To an experienced player, the entire process usually takes less than a few minutes, yet it is always unavoidable.

Every time I decide against sitting down and playing a game, this process is the single greatest contributor.  I always tell my friends and my classmates that I try to set aside time to play games, and this process only reinforces the notion that I am sacrificing my time and my ability to be productive elsewhere.  There is simply no way to make the decision and just play…on consoles.

Recently I have been enamored with the iPhone as a video game platform, and the amount of time I spend playing games on my iPhone has come quite close to the amount of time I spend playing games on my consoles.  The main reason I have been drawn to iPhone games is because they allow instant entry into the magic circle.  My iPhone is always with me, and with one tap I can begin any of my games right where I left off.  I never think to myself, “I should really play an iPhone game now,” rather, I am usually just messing around on my iPhone and I naturally end up playing a game.

I am not alone.  Over 12 million people, many of whom never considered themselves “gamers,” have become addicted to Angry Birds, the best selling iPhone game.  Facebook has become a more popular game platform than all of the dedicated game platforms combined seemingly overnight.  There are many reasons for this occurrence, but one of the most overlooked is the simple fact that these platforms make it easy for their users to quickly engage in games.  Neither platform has seen the maturity in content that the traditional platforms have gained over the years, but in due time that will come.

By far the most common excuse given for not playing games is a lack of time, but by removing the annoyances of beginning a game, we can better integrate games into our everyday lives.  As a kid, whenever my sister and I came home from school she would immediately go into the living room and turn on the television.  I never watched much TV, so when I pressed her on this habit she simply replied, “it’s the quickest way to be entertained.”  Looking back, she was absolutely right.  With the push of a single button, the TV provided entertainment.  My sister did not believe she was putting aside time for entertainment.  Rather, her intrinsic human need for entertainment made watching television habitual.

Games do not need to consume every hour of our daily lives, but there is no reason that they should not be as accessible as your average television station.  Facebook, iPhone, and iPad have all placed games at our fingertips.  Recent developments such as OnLive have attempted to bring instantaneous play to more traditional games, but the traditional console market has yet to show any sign of change.  Over the past few decades we have accessed our games through a box connected to a television set, but the developments over the past few years have forever changed the means necessary to blast into the magic circle.  Everyone that owns some kind of screen more than likely plays video games on a daily basis.  Rather than denounce the majority as inferior types of players, let’s make the games that we love just a click, a tap, or a button press away.