April 7, 2009

Beyond Independent: So Indie it is Mainstream

This year’s GDC was probably the most thrilling event to date for indie game makers. The industry as a whole is finally beginning to notice the innovation and excitement surrounding independent developers, as games like Braid and World of Goo receive critical acclaim and major award nominations. During GDC’s independent games summit, developers shared their knowledge with eager peers as a community of strong-willed, passionate designers and programmers began to form. They got to learn from the mistakes of others, debate the significance of their medium, and they even participate in an event called the “indie game maker rant.” During this forty-five minute session, nine successful yet autonomous developers each took five minutes to stand on their soapbox and speak on any subject they pleased. Topics ranged from legitimizing games as an artistic medium to the need for a touch-screen game that teaches women how to pleasure themselves. However, the most controversial and relevant rant was an impromptu one given by Phil Fish of Kokoromi. He argued that the Independent Games Festival should not have accepted a submission called PixelJunk Eden, which was simultaneously nominated for the more mainstream Game Developers Choice awards. His point is that Q-Games, which developed PixelJunk backed by Sony, does not qualify as an indie studio. This has sparked a conversation throughout the blogosphere on what defines an independent game. I found two articles on the subject: one that leaves the question open ended, and one that argues indie game makers should not be verbally ranting at all, rather, they should express their ideas and critiques through the games they make. I decided to use these two forums to add my ideas to the conversation. My responses can be read at the respective sites, but I have also pasted my part of the discussion below.

"Q Games: Not Indie Enough?"

The only way to determine with any amount of authority whether or not Q-Games is indeed “indie enough” is to define what makes any developer indie. This proves to be a difficult task, and one with which many in the gaming community have struggled. Perhaps the simplest idea is to classify by team size. A game made by one person in his bedroom during his free time is undeniably independent, but so are two man teams like 2d Boy and slightly larger studios like thatgamecompany. Where is the line drawn? Are the fifteen or so that worked on PixelJunk Eden too many? I am currently developing a Nintendo DS title with a similar team size, but with no funding and no previous releases, we certainly qualify as indie. Maybe people react to the fact that Q-Games founder Dylan Cuthbert created the massively successful Star Fox. Many other developers, however, have also left their mainstream jobs in favor of running their own studios. Money may also be a factor, as part of the indie experience seems to be struggling through development fueled by nothing but passion and Mountain Dew. I think this argument has some merit, but I still feel uneasy boxing developers in like this. Braid’s Jonathan Blow nearly went bankrupt to create his time-manipulation platformer. With its success, however, I doubt he will struggle as much for his next title, yet it will still certainly be classified as an independent work. As mentioned in this article, Q-Games’ tie to Sony also raises questions, though Cuthbert claims his studio retains complete creative control of all their projects.

Ultimately, for any simple definition, a counter-argument can be found. Every classification paints itself into some sort of corner. The intentionally vague IGF submission restrictions simply state, “the submitted game…[must be] created in the ‘indie spirit’.” This way, judges can determine eligibility on a game-to-game basis, avoiding a solid categorization. Indie is really an anti-definition; an amalgam of games that fit under no other umbrella – anything outside of the mainstream. After all, indie studios can be small teams or medium-sized teams, with absolutely no budget or money to spare. Some push the envelope in terms of innovation, while others make Bejeweled rip-offs, and they may or may not have a development deal with a major corporation. PixelJunk does not really fit into any category, so perhaps it is indie, but in a way I think it is kind of a non-issue. People assign a little too much weight to the title “indie,” even though no one can really define it (a phenomenon parodied in Mega64's video "If You're Not Indie F*@k You!", shown at the IGF award ceremony, and pictured above and to the right). In the end, Q-Games got some flack and bad press for submitting to IGF, a platform usually reserved for new or struggling studios, and perhaps the judges ultimately chose to award other games in part because PixelJunk had the advantages and funding that others lacked.

"Tales of the Rampant Coyote: What Do Indies Have to Rant About?"

With all the fuzzy definitions of independent games floating around, I am pleased to see your unique statement, “an indie is a living embodiment of a rant against the status quo.” It captures an important part of the indie dev’s psyche. However, I would like to examine this statement and follow its many paths and implications. I will accept for the moment that an indie is a rant against the current system; a sort of punk rock artist of the video game world. They rebel, as you say, because “players and game makers alike are not being adequately served by the industry.” In this way, indies are inherently commercial failures, because whatever they make is unappreciated by the larger gaming community. However, some games do bypass the system and achieve success, effectively “giving the finger” to the industry. But what happens now, as companies begin to sense opportunity in these independent developers? Are the students behind Narbacular Drop sellouts because they sold their idea to Valve and created Portal, one of the most popular games of 2008? I do not really think they bypassed the system, but rather joined it, albeit making a profound impact. Are World of Goo and Braid, winners of IGF awards one and two years ago respectively, now mainstream, as they were both nominated for Game Developer’s Choice awards this year? Just as Fox Searchlight now produces movies like Juno and Little Miss Sunshine, two films that replicate an indie-like feel, so too will major game studios emulate the style of independent developers. The trend has already begun, with games like Henry Hatsworth (pictured left), a title fully backed and conceived by Electronic Arts, with a quirky sense of humor and a unique gameplay mechanic. After all, indies used to be synonymous with casual games, until the industry realized that they could be monetized, and now Pogo.com, another EA entity, is the biggest player in the casual market. Because indie developers are successfully changing the “establishment,” independent games as we know them will eventually be folded into the mainstream, and the game makers will either have to find something new to rant about, or risk becoming obsolete.

March 31, 2009

Artsy Fartsy: Mona Lisa, David, and Super Mario Bros 3?

This past week I was fortunate enough to attend my first Game Developers Conference, which took place in San Francisco. The Game Developers Conference, or GDC, is a weeklong event during which thousands of developers attend seminars, tutorials, award shows, and an exposition, with the aim of learning from and networking with fellow professionals in the industry. Much of the week centered on promoting and pitching my own indie game, Reflection DS, which scored an Independent Games Festival award, claiming the title Next Great Mobile Game (shameless plug), but I did find time to sit in on a lecture or two. These were all very useful and covered diverse topics, ranging from finding inspiration when designing to managing conflicts in a small team of creative people. Most speakers projected a casual image common to the industry, but none went as far as my favorite speaker; a man approximately six and a half feet tall and skinny as a rail, wearing clothes tailored for a twelve year old.

I would not be faithful to the topic of non-traditional games if I did not write a post about Jason Rohrer (pictured right), the ultimate independent developer who makes my no-budget student effort look like a multi-million dollar sellout. When not baking the bread his family eats every day for lunch or teaching his infant to urinate on command, he creates small gems of games that begin to shed light on the human experience in a way no other developer’s work does. Rohrer, his wife, and two sons live off a meager ten thousand dollars a year, provided only by donations to his website, as he offers all of his games free of charge. However, he seems more than content with such a modest lifestyle on his Potsdam, New York meadow (which, even when ordered by the city, he refused to mow, landing him in a court case where he represented himself and won, in part on the basis that cutting grass releases toxins in the air harmful to the environment). Rohrer’s games all feature a minimalist, pixelated aesthetic, highlighting the fact that the path to achieving artistic reputability in games lies not in enhancing graphics capabilities until we can realistically represent human heads exploding, but rather in focusing on what makes games unique: their mechanics. And it is through his games’ mechanics, rather than cut scenes or canned, linear storylines, that Rohrer conveys meaning. In Passage, for example, widely touted as the first game to make people cry, the player controls a man seeking treasure. Early in the game, he can choose to join with a woman, and if he does, she will walk along with him wherever he goes. From this, he gets the benefit of constant companionship, but it becomes harder to accumulate treasure. As the five-minute game progresses, the characters’ sprites visibly age, until suddenly and unexpectedly, the woman turns into a gravestone. After twenty more seconds or so, the man also dies and the screen fades to black, leaving the user only with the word "Passage." While this game seems simple, it inspired Ubisoft designer Rod Humble to reprimand other commercial developers at GDC 2008, saying "Why can't we make a game that fucking means something? A game that matters?" Another one of Rohrer’s works, Gravitation, tackles such complex concepts as the relationship between father and son, the balance between work and home, weighing dreams and creative inspirations versus reality, and the loneliness of an empty nest, all in eight minutes of gameplay.

Yet this pioneer maintains that digital games are still not quite art. On the screen in a small but packed room in the Moscone convention center, Rohrer flashed his first slide. A dotted red line ran horizontally through the center, splitting the image in two. Above the line were images of famous works of literature, film, art, and even a Beatles album. Below sat some of the most acclaimed video games in the history of the medium. Rohrer claimed that the line represents the gap to artistic legitimacy that is still yet to be bridged. Some titles, like the Metal Gear Solid series, feature in-depth stories in an attempt to be taken seriously, but with hours (more than six in the most recent installment) of non-interactive sequences, what makes these games different from a mediocre movie? 2K's Bioshock nearly eliminated cut scenes, but it still conformed to a linear progression: a series of interactive moments strung together with bits of film-like narrative. In 2005, Roger Ebert (see left) alleged, "video games [are] inherently inferior to film and literature... [due to their lack of] authorial control." While most gamers lash out at this statement, Rohrer accepts Ebert’s argument as legitimate, though sets out to disprove him. He agrees that mimicking cinema is not the way to legitimize the medium. Just as movies had to break away from the constraints of theatre, games must discover what separates them from film in order to stand on their own. No one has yet produced a Citizen Kane equivalent for video games. However, a board game like Go, which has been around for over four thousand years, could possibly be classified as art because of its infinite depth, complexity, longevity, and replayability (players can come back to it over the span of their life and find new, interesting meaning and fresh insights that they did not see before). German developed board games like Puerto Rico and Settlers of Catan also share this near-infinite complexity. What do these table games have that their digital counterparts lack? Jason Rohrer argues that the missing element is an inherent reliance on multiplayer. Single player games, he says, fall into three categories: puzzles, like Peg Solitaire, chance or luck games, like Roulette, or reflex challenges, like Pac-Man. When combined, these categories produce something like Tetris, which has almost infinite complexity, but still feels a little lacking as art. He believes that truly innovative and defining work will rely heavily on multiplayer interaction.

I do believe that true multiplayer interaction (most current multiplayer experiences, as Rohrer argues, are simply puzzle, chance, or reflex challenges mapped to two players, rather than a thought-provoking, strategic struggle with infinite variation as in classic board games) is something that needs to be better explored in digital gaming, especially in this age of interconnectedness, and perhaps the medium will achieve artistic legitimacy as a result. However, I think that Rohrer sells himself and his fellow art game developers short. Passage and Gravitation may not be the defining works of the genre, but they provide unique moments and insight in a form that film and literature cannot quite express. I agree with Ebert in that the designer loses some control, but, if well executed, games transfer that lost authorship to the player, creating a more personal, tailored experience. When I play Passage, for those five minutes I am the man who searches for wealth, but cannot ever find it all, and it is my wife who passes as I slowly waste away beside her. By playing, I gain a sense of ownership, awareness, and perspective that is inherently absent from film and literature.

March 10, 2009

Browser Games: Tighten Up the Graphics

The computer is arguably the most widely distributed gaming device today (with the mobile phone being the other candidate), and the browser is by far the most viable platform on the PC. With the relatively recent surge of casual gamers, web-browser games have become immensely popular and wide-ranging, yet the hardcore player generally sticks to consoles or off-the-shelf PC games. As hardware has improved, triple-A titles have also evolved, with graphics becoming almost photorealistic – yet their browser counterparts have for the most part stuck with two-dimensional visuals and all too often one-dimensional gameplay. This week, however, I examine a game that not only has depth to its design but also has depth of field. In Blush (pictured below right), by Flashbang Studios, the player controls a graceful squid swimming through a whimsical neon sea, collecting eggs and attacking ocean co-inhabitants with its tentacles, all within a four minute time period. While most reviews of Blush have been extremely positive, many bloggers and community members have complained about the timer saying it is “no fun” or it “doesn't leave much time to explore.” One particular critic of the countdown mechanic wrote a very thoughtful analysis on the game, so I decided to debate the topic as a comment on her site. Controversy about the timer aside, most community members have overwhelmingly positive opinions about the game, yet its design alone, while innovative, is not extraordinarily so. What separates Blush is the fact that it is built on the Unity Engine, a 3D platform for the web-browser. Strikingly beautiful, Blush transports the player into an immersive, mystical undersea environment. In his post on the blog Play This Thing!, Patrick Dugan claims that Blush is an indication of what is to come in the browser game scene. My response to this prediction, as well as my comment about the game’s timer mechanic can be found below and at the respective sites.


I am happy to see so many positive reviews of Blush, another truly impressive entry from Flashbang, and one that I think boosts their stature and maturity in the game development community. While the previous titles on Blurst, such as Minotaur in a China Shop and Offroad Velociraptor Safari have pushed the limits technologically and are engaging and charming experiences, the “stunning” and “surreal” aesthetic that you mentioned certainly put Blush on another level. I am also glad that amid your mostly shining review, you make an observation that echoes what many players feel: the game lacks an un-timed version. The player is rudely jolted out of the serene flow after a measly four minutes of play; however, after some thought I would argue that without the timer, the game would not be as satisfying. A large part of Blush’s pleasure derives from the feeling of wanting more and that sensation would diminish given free reign of the environment.

The timer is one of my least favorite devices employed by designers, and Flashbang uses it as a crutch over and over again. In Minotaur in a China Shop, they exercise it with a little bit of subtlety, as each of the five days has its own time limit, and the security guards usually shower one with a barrage of arrows before one even notices the clock, but Offroad Velociraptor Safari has a nearly identical countdown system to that of Blush. My problem with the timer is that it exposes the underlying game system, lessening the immersion and thereby cheapening the experience by reminding the player that this world is not real. I think a more environment-oriented representation of the timer, like the view steadily darkening or the edges of the world creeping inward, might have better served Blush than its current clock, but without some concept of time, the player might become bored. The play area feels almost limitless during the short spurt of gameplay, but as the very illuminating behind the scenes footage indicates, it is in reality rather modest. I counted no more than seventeen game objects made up of only three unique types in the entire game world. Do you think that the player would sustain interest after exploring the depths of this sandbox? You mentioned adding levels as an option, and I would eagerly welcome this solution, but designing additional levels takes time, and with Flashbang’s pledge to develop six games in twelve months, they do not have any to spare. At any rate, I think the fact that the community yearns for an un-timed version in order to explore the entire environment proves that the designers successfully provided a user experience that satisfies and compels players, leaving them hungry for more.

“Blush: It Will Make You”

First I want to commend you, Patrick, and everyone else at Play This Thing! for bringing so many unique and innovative games into the public eye. It is refreshing and rare to see a site focus on the obscure rather than the mainstream, and every day I look forward to your uninhibited perspective about an unknown indie title. In this particular article, your comparison of Blush to flOw is well stated, and I tend to agree that the former borrows from, yet changes the latter, creating something entirely different. However, you also touch upon an issue that I think extends beyond the almost niche (yet extremely compelling) focus of this site, and applies more directly to the broader community when you say: “the game is more significant as a demonstration of what web-gaming can become than as a specific design.” Moreover, I would suggest that games such as Blush will push the browser as a platform in a more mainstream direction.

I suppose browser gaming is already mainstream, as everybody and (actually more often) their mother plays Bejeweled or Bingo Luau to pass the time. What I am wondering is, do you think games using technology like the Unity engine will turn the browser into a more hardcore-friendly environment? The games displayed on Blurst, like Blush and Offroad Velociraptor Safari are looking like pretty sophisticated 3D games compared to the run-of-the-mill flash game; Jetpack Brontosaurus (pictured above left) plays almost like Spyro the Dragon for the original Playstation, and probably looks a little better, albeit at about fifteen frames per second. These Flashbang titles, while immersive (thanks to their beautiful visuals and clean design), certainly were produced with the casual player in mind, employing simple control schemes and enforcing (often a little clumsily) a less than five-minute play session. What happens, though, when someone decides to make a more complete experience using Unity or a similar engine? As this generation of hardware seems to be nearly maxed out in terms of graphics capabilities, and with the next generation nowhere near on the horizon, do you think that browser games will start to close the technological gap? And if so, will the easy accessibility of these more extensive experiences captivate casual players, or will it simply attract more hardcore gamers to the platform? With consoles becoming increasingly expensive to develop for, I think developers will turn more of their focus towards cheaper mediums, as long as they can figure out a way to monetize their efforts.

March 3, 2009

Playstation 3: Purposefully Perplexing

This week, rather than examining an independent non-traditional game, I decided to write about a more mainstream issue in the gaming world, which still affects creativity and innovation in the industry. Before Sony released the Playstation 3, they promised a more powerful alternative to Microsoft’s Xbox 360. The PS3 used a new framework called cell architecture, designed jointly by IBM, Toshiba, and Sony, that was supposed to yield graphics far superior to anything seen before in games. Sony claimed it would blow everything else out of the water in terms of power, processing speed, and graphics capabilities, and the built in Blue-ray player was going to drive the unit’s sales. However, despite the hype and promise, upon its release in 2006, very few consumers bought the PS3. Most blame its lackluster performance on the extremely steep $499 baseline price tag (compared with the $279 cost of the 360 at the time). Some say that Microsoft, having released the 360 an entire year earlier, already had control over the market, leaving little room for Sony. While these two factors both worked against the PS3, the main problem was that consumers had no reason to purchase it. People do not acquire consoles to watch movies; they get them for the games, and unlike its predecessor, the Playstation 3 has had few must-buy exclusives. Additionally, the games offered on both Xbox 360 and PS3 look only marginally better on the latter despite the hype of a technically superior machine.

Ever since Sony released the Playstation 3, developers have been banging their heads against it, trying in vain to take advantage of the promised capabilities. A game studio at which I worked (I will not mention the company’s name so as not to violate the NDA I signed) had so much trouble programming for it that they were forced to release the PS3 SKU of their game almost three months later than the PC and Xbox 360 versions. Midway executive producer Shaun Himmerick went so far as to say, on the weekly podcast, “This Xbox Life,” that the PS3 is “a huge pain in the ass.” One would think that Sony would want to combat this image, but in the March issue of the Official Playstation Magazine, Sony CEO Kaz Harai emphasizes the difficulty, claiming that these troubles are in fact intentional by saying, “we don’t provide the ‘easy to program for’ console that [developers] want, because ‘easy to program for’ means that anybody will be able to take advantage of pretty much what the hardware can do.” He thinks that making it challenging to develop for the platform will force the games to mature during the cycle. As a side effect, this model shuts out the small or independent developers, leaving space only for those with the time and resources to crack the console, and even these companies spend money struggling with the hardware, instead of putting it towards refining the gameplay.

By placing this strain on developers, Sony does, however, discourage an oversaturated market full of half-baked titles like those of the Atari 2600 in the 1980’s. Games were so inexpensive and easy to develop that companies like Johnson and Johnson and Purina started making them (Tooth Protectors, pictured below, and Chase the Chuck Wagon respectively), and this influx of mediocrity contributed in part to the video game crash of 1983. While there are still some pretty terrible games like M&M’s Adventure for the Wii and the Xbox Live download Yaris commissioned by Toyota (which X360 Magazine UK simply and elegantly called “a festering turd”), Sony is being far too cautious. The video game industry has matured dramatically in the past twenty-five years, and consumers can for the most part, with the help of Internet resources that were previously unavailable, separate what is worth their time from what is not. Conversely, this steep learning curve for developers results not only in an absence of poor, highly licensed titles, but also a lack of quality selections that could drive the sale of PS3 units. As a result, the Playstation 3 launch was unimpressive and left Sony with a much smaller market share than they had enjoyed in the previous generation with the PS2. There have, though, been some impressive exclusives in the past year or two, such as Naughty Dog’s Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, Konami’s Metal Gear Solid 4, and LittleBigPlanet by Media Molecule, but none of these offerings has been able to spark hardware sales like Halo 3 or Gears of War have for the 360. Furthermore, Grand Theft Auto IV, the current number one rated game on Metacritic for both consoles and originally slated to be a Playstation exclusive, not only released on both systems simultaneously, but also offered unique downloadable content to Xbox owners. It is also worth pointing out that Naughty Dog, owned by Sony, is able to successfully realize the cell processor’s power partly because it has an entire group called the ICE Team in house devoted to dissecting the PS3 and figuring out how to reach its potential; a luxury most developers, especially indie studios, do not have.

The fact that Sony intentionally made it difficult to program for the Playstation in a strange attempt to increase the length of the console’s life makes me seriously question their judgment. While Sony has a very strong set of first party houses that have made such extraordinary games as Gran Turismo, God of War, Twisted Metal, Shadows of the Colossus and ICO, a console cannot survive without third party support, and by causing so many problems for outside developers, Sony is straining this relationship. Independent studios will continue to have trouble grappling with the architecture, and as a result I do not expect to see too many underground and fresh titles like Katamari Damacy on the Playstation this cycle. Hope remains with PSN (Playstation Network), as games like Everyday Shooter and Flower are innovative and have been released to some success and critical acclaim, but XBLA (Xbox Live Arcade) and WiiWare remain better portals for downloadable titles, primarily because of the install bases Microsoft and Nintendo have accumulated. Maybe in five years or so, as long as they do not get too tired of wrestling with the cell framework, developers will unleash the graphical and processing power of the PS3, but because so much time and so many resources have to be devoted to this struggle, innovation in design will more often than not be brushed aside. In either case, I am happy that Sony is finally giving an honest assessment of the PS3: cell processor, built in Blue-ray, and deliberate confusion.

February 24, 2009

What Makes a Game: 4 Minutes and 33 Seconds of Discussion

Continuing along the same vein as my previous post, this week I chose a game not necessarily designed to be fun, but rather created to spark discussion. During the Nordic Game Jam, a twenty-four-hour competition to create an interactive experience based on a given prompt, Petri Purho produced an application that has so little interaction that it has prompted a conversation throughout the community about what even qualifies as a game. In 4 Minutes and 33 Seconds of Uniqueness, the player simply loads the program and watches a progress bar fill the screen (see image below). The object is to be the only person in the world playing at a given moment, and if she can hold onto that title for an entire 4 minutes and 33 seconds, she wins. Otherwise, the application closes without explanation. To supplement this experience, Jonathan Basseri created an online visulizer that lets the current leader watch her progress and gives recently ousted players an identity (a location and IP address) to blame for their downfall. After I heard about this game, I visited Purho’s blog, where he shares his insights about 4’33” of Uniqueness. I then followed and contributed to the heated thread of posts debating the merits of this experimental and controversial work. I later stumbled upon Offworld, where Brandon Boyer hints at what makes 4 Minutes and 33 Seconds of Uniqueness a compelling system. Commenting on the blog, I expanded upon his idea, and offered a definition of my own. These two comments can be found on the respective sites, and I have also pasted them below.

"4 Minutes and 33 Seconds of Uniqueness"

4 Minutes and 33 Seconds of Uniqueness is shining example of the continuing evolution of interactive media. Those that immediately dismiss it should consider parallels in music, art, and film. Naturally, the first work invoked is John Cage’s 4’33” (sheet music pictured on the left), the silent composition after which you named the game. Just as some of the previous commenters say that this game does not deserve any attention due to its minimal interactivity, those in the audience at the first performance of 4’33” were irritated and angry once they realized that no notes were going to be played. Cage’s inspiration, Robert Rauschenberg’s White Paintings also come to mind, and while the art community is more receptive to controversial pieces, many people still dispute that those plain white panels are art. In 4 Minutes and 33 Seconds of Uniqueness, you challenge the thoughtful player to define what makes a game. Some have posted here on your blog that because it is not fun, it is not a game. Firstly, I would argue that, especially coupled with Jonathan Basseri’s visualizer, you have created an astonishingly simple, yet still exciting and engaging mechanic. Secondly, I ask, does a film have to be entertaining for it to be a film? Does music have to sound good for it to be music? Can a painting be ugly and still be art? I think the bigger question is how interactive must an experience be before it qualifies as a game. Whatever the answer, with 4’33” of Uniqueness, you have borrowed this idea of self-definition that has been discussed in so many other mediums, and opened up a dialog in the gaming community, while at the same time bringing a little more credence to games as an art form.

While people are beginning to accept games as a form of artistic expression, most still have a narrow view of the possibilities of “art games.” They see the beauty of Jason Rohrer’s Passage, the game that follows the entire life of a man in five minutes, and they enjoy the sandbox play and child-like sensibility of your own Crayon Physics Deluxe, yet they cannot appreciate the reflective nature of 4 Minutes and 33 Seconds of Uniqueness. Art is not just about beauty; it also makes a statement and is a catalyst for contemplation and discussion.

"My 45 Seconds of Uniqueness, Vizualized"

When I first heard about 4 Minutes and 33 Seconds of Uniqueness, I was skeptical and did not think it could possibly qualify as a game. The only action, as commenter VoxExMachina points out, is “load the game,” which initially does not seem like a choice at all. However, since 4’33” challenges the player to define a game, I decided to give it a second chance. In my view (and I am paraphrasing this from the book Game Design Workshop by Tracy Fullerton, Christopher Swain, and Steven Hoffman), a game is a system with predefined rules in which a player encounters some form of conflict and makes choices that result in an unequal outcome. My first observation is that Petri Purho has clearly detailed a set of rules that determine the play; in fact, there is only one: if the player is the only person in the world running the game for 4 minutes and 33 seconds, she wins. Every other human being becomes the enemy, threatening to end her domination. As for unequal outcome, the application inelegantly shuts down with a loss, and the crudely drawn checkmark and exclamation points surrounding the winner’s IP address celebrate the elusive victory.

The only remaining qualification is choice. Is 4’33” interactive enough to be considered a game? When I played, I thought about how to use my only given ability in the most effective ways possible. I loaded at 1:30 AM Los Angeles time, when reasonable Americans slept and Europeans started waking up and going to work. I deduced few other cultures had been exposed to the game. Whenever someone ran the application, cutting my time short, I immediately re-opened my program to squash that Danish IP address’ morale. Finally, I used my “load the game” powerup as often as I could, and after only about fifteen minutes, the mundane status bar gave way to a pixilated checkmark; confirming my dominant uniqueness. I do not know if I won because of my strategy or because of blind luck, but the game made me feel like my choices caused the victory. I believe games can be designed about anything, from alien invasions to surfing Wikipedia (see WikiPaths), so while definitely not a run-of-the-mill shooter or a classic platformer, in my opinion, 4 Minutes and 33 Seconds passes.

February 17, 2009

Innovation in 2009: You Have To Get The Joke

The Independent Games Festival, founded in 1998 by Think Services to "encourage innovation in game development and to recognize the best independent game developers," has unearthed some of the most notable games in recent memory. Braid, Jonathan Blow's time-manipulation platformer, Everyday Shooter, the compilation of musical shoot-em-ups from Queasy Games, and World of Goo, the physics-based puzzler from 2D Boy, all won the IGF Design Innovation award (in 2006, 2007, and 2008 respectively), and are now among the top rated and most popular games of their platforms. Hence, this year's list of nominees for said award was a natural springboard for my search for the future leaders of the industry. While I had not heard of four of the five finalists, I recognized one, Kian Bashiri's satirical You Have To Burn The Rope, from my previous web crawls. In the game, after navigating a short tunnel filled with detailed instructions about what lies ahead, the player reaches a chamber with a gigantic (albeit harmless) boss. The only way to defeat this "Grinning Colossus" is to burn the rope above his head, as pictured below. The entire game plays in less than a minute, followed by a three minute credits sequence involving screenshots from the perilous journey set to a song (reminiscent of Jonathan Coulton's Still Alive from Portal, another IGF notable, but this one a student showcase winner, previously titled Narbacular Drop) touting the player's heroic bravery. Unlike its Design Innovation award predecessors, YHTBTR will never be popular in any commercial way due to its length and lack of any real gameplay; indeed, some users are furious that it took even five minutes of their time. However, Bashiri strives to innovate not by introducing new, unique features, but rather by holding up a mirror to the rest of the industry and pointing out some flaws in current game design practices.

In perhaps its most overt criticism, You Have To Burn The Rope asserts that games have gotten too challenging for the average player; in fact, the text: "Computer games are getting so hard these days..." displays directly under the game in the browser window. There have always been challenging games (see Rare's Battletoads, considered by Game Trailers to be the most difficult game of all time), but with interactive media's expanding demographic, the Ninja Gaiden's of the world are left exclusively to the hardest of the hardcore, and the gaming public at large demands more accessible experiences. Not only games, but consoles themselves inherently exclude a large audience, as a controller with fifteen buttons and two joysticks intimidates someone who has not touched a d-pad since the age of the NES (see left). The entrance of the Wii in 2006 largely introduced the casual market to consoles because of the Wiimote's freeform input system. Players could suddenly pick up a controller and swing their arm as if they were wielding a tennis racquet, as an avatar mimics their movements. However, most games that successfully use the Wii's control system in an intuitive way are little more than prototypes, and those rare few, like Super Mario Galaxy and The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, that appropriately integrate these mechanics into a full game are too long for the casual gamer.

Thus, the PC remains the most popular medium for gaming, and sites like Yahoo! Games and Pogo dominate this space. Through these portals, players enjoy variants on classics, such as Mahjong Safari and Fashion Solitaire presented by Lifetime Television Channel. One particular Pogo offering stood out to me: a game with a title almost as self-referential as You Have To Burn The Rope called Everyone Wins Bingo. In an interview with IndieGames, Bashiri says that while YHTBTR is partly a comment on how difficult games have become, "it's also a subtle reference to how some games are kind of patronizing toward the player, like too easy." Henrik NÃ¥mark's credit song, "Now You're a Hero" showers the main character with praise for doing nothing but what the title plainly explains to do. Similarly, the particle effects in Everyone Wins Bingo lavishly celebrate accomplishments that are completely mundane, because after all, in this version of bingo, everyone wins. Braid's Jonathan Blow argues in a feature with Gamasutra that casual games are not the only offenders in this regard. He admonishes triple A titles like God of War and Fable II for reducing challenge, the element that makes interactivity unique, in order to advance the linear story, the component in which films, literature, and other mediums specialize. While storytelling is an undeniably important ingredient, "if we eventually become no interaction and all story," says Blow, "then we're just a bad movie, right?"

When games strictly adhere to a linear narrative, they also eliminate choice, because in order to follow a set script, certain events must occur. As a result, designers must insert "false choices" or the illusion of interactivity. Although the player feels like he makes a decision, in reality there is only one option: the one that leads to the next juncture in the story. To satirize this phenomenon, Bashiri implemented a useless weapon and multiple paths that both lead to the inevitable moment where the rope is burned. "Both the ability to throw axes and the option to go up the left or the right set of staircases are examples of false choices," he explained to Gamasutra on Thursday. "They give you the illusion of interactivity, but of course they don't matter at all."

Critics of You Have To Burn The Rope assert that because the developers spent only 10 hours creating the game, it is not worthy of consideration. Angry bloggers post comments like, "this game is stupid" and "this is the easiest game ever." Incidentally, they stumbled upon one of the central themes: games with false choices and limited interactivity are pointless. While YHTBTR, like any form of satire, simplifies the problem, it sparks a relevant, meaningful dialogue, and calls out fundamental game design flaws through a less-than-a-minute-long interactive experience. Perhaps the fact that it received a fair amount of non-gaming media attention helped YHTBTR get nominated, but it truely is deserving based on its own merits. You Have To Burn The Rope is certainly unlike any past IGF Design Innovation award recipient, but that very fact affirms its position among the finalists.

February 10, 2009

Surfing the Web: The High Scorers

Welcome, dear reader, to Don't Save the Princess. In this blog, I seek to discover the creative pulse of the industry by focusing on interactive experiences that engage the player in fresh and exciting ways. As a budding voice in the already saturated field of game enthusiasts, I decided to first scour the web in an attempt to appraise the substance and presentation of both prominent and obscure sites. To do this, I used the criteria set forth by the Webby Awards and ISMA, evaluating based on content, visual design, functionality, and other such categories. These are resources that I will draw on for future posts, and I hope that by building my linkroll (located on the right sidebar), this blog will become a hub for those craving a deeper understanding of non-traditional games.

In order to explore the non-traditional, we must first educate ourselves on the mainstream. The first links I analyzed are the most well known to the gaming community: GameSpot, Imagine Games Network (more often referred to as IGN), 1UP and GameSpy. Cluttered and difficult to navigate, these review-centric sites sometimes act as conduits for public relations departments at the expense of the author's editorial voice. Additionally, IGN and GameSpot intermittently splash full screen advertisements for up to thirty seconds before displaying the site's content. However, they are undeniably influential, and therefore cannot be ignored. A less biased source for assessing the quality of an established title is Metacritic Game Reviews. Metacritic compiles and displays every rating for a title in an elegant, easy to navigate format.

To dig deeper into this interactive medium, I look to Kotaku and 2007 Webby Award winner Gamasutra, both comprised of editorials, interviews, and news stories, presented with a professional and balanced tone. Gamasutra is easier to navigate, as the icons on the home page of Kotaku are too large (see right), necessitating an abundance of scrolling. Think Services Game Group, which runs Gamasutra, also runs a series of sister sites, which streamline the plethora of information found on Gamasutra into several highly focused blogs (Game Career Guide, Game Set Watch, GamerBytes, Games on Deck, Game Development Research, and Indie Games, to name a few). 2008 Webby Award winner The Escapist also projects a well-rounded point of view, but with a more creative presentation.

In order to find sources with stronger bias, I enlisted the help of engines like Blog Flux and Google Reader, stumbling upon pages such as The Ludologist, which encourages a more theoretical understanding of games, and Play This Thing!, whose authors pride themselves in the ability to expose and review utterly obscure titles.

Finally, one cannot fully understand a medium as interactive as gaming without experiencing it. For this, consult the weekly "fun for free" feature on 4 Color Rebellion, or simply go to Kongregate (another 2008 Webby winner) and choose from hundreds of user created games.
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