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Thursday, January 30, 2003EA to Close Westwood
As part of its quarterly earnings report yesterday (which included an impressive 89% increase in earnings), EA announced that it would be closing Westwood Studios.
Westwood is the studio responsible for the Command & Conquer franchise--the original game was one of the pioneers of real-time strategy--as well as Earth and Beyond, a massively multiplayer space game. As such, it's a shame to see them go; Westwood has never quite matched the quality of Blizzard, say, but they've done good, and occasionally quite innovative, work.
EA also announced that they'd be establishing a major studio in LA where 200+ developers would work. I believe that would make it their largest development operation outside Redwood City, where EA is headquartered. This points up both one of EA's strengths and one if its weaknesses. EA is brilliant at running game factories and turning out games in franchises where incremental improvement rather than ab ovo innovation is the order of the day; the exemplar is EA Sports, which turns out first-rate sports games every year.
The advantage of sports games, of course, is that it's pretty straightforward to turn out a new game every year--just update the stats, move up the graphics curve as hardware improves, and incrementally update gameplay. And you can be reasonably assured that fans of your football title, say, will buy the next one, because they want the updated stats to keep current with the real world.
It's harder to do that with almost every other game style; while fans of C&C may well be tempted to pick up the next game in the franchise, you also have to sell them on why it's different from previous titles in the series, and what's new and better about it. This is also why EA does well with licensed products, like The Lord of the Rings; innovation isn't required, just doing a good implementation of a well-understood game style.
Where EA has problems is in permitting smaller studios the lattitude to innovate while keeping their cost structure under control. When they buy a smaller studio, it's generally only a matter of time before it's shuttered (like Kesmai) or gutted (like Origin). (Origin, it should be acknowledged, had a good long run before EA decided to yank their props--as did Westwood.)
EA has attempted four major innovations that don't fit their normal mode of production in recent years: The Sims, Majestic, EA.com, and Sims Online. They succeeded with The Sims, and they're to be creditted with backing Will Wright in producing so quirky and so interesting a game (albeit the "success" was more due to supporting it after it created excitement--EA was quite skeptical of the game before published). The other three fared less well: Majestic was essentially an abject failure, despite substantial funding and marketing support. EA.com has been something of a financial disaster, to the point of dragging down EA's earnings for quite some time. And Sims Online--despite a stable launch--was pushed out the door with a far more limited feature set than originally intended. A year ago, EA was talking about it as a potential million-subscriber product; at the moment, it has 80,000 (per rumor), which is creditable, but probably not enough to produce the kind of return EA is looking for. It will be interesting to see how the game develops--Maxis clearly intends to add new features over time, and it's possible that Sims Online can scale up, eventually reaching a considerably larger player base. But that has not been a pattern shown by any other MMG--typically, successful MMGs achieve several hundred thousand users very quickly and, with good management, grow modestly from that level.
In some ways, Vivendi has been the anti-EA. They recognize that they have a gem in Blizzard, and pretty much leave them alone to do what they do. But on the other hand, they've never really managed to get Sierra, their other major game asset, back on track--Sierra has somewhat languished for years, producing the occasional hit, but also a lot of games that have just disappeared. EA would know what to do with an operation like Sierra--but if they had Blizzard, its fate would probably follow the same path as Origin and Westwood.
EA does what it does well very well. But I wonder if there's also another way to run a substantial game business: with smaller, independent, creative studios, left alone when they do well, with a management that seeks to turn poorly-performing studios around by importing best practices from those doing well. I mean, why can't Vivendi use what Blizzard knows to improve the situation at Sierra?
Fundamentally, managing any entertainment business means managing creativity--finding it, encouraging it, exploiting it, and making sure those crazed artist types don't blow your budget. EA has found a relatively conservative approach that works, at the expense of lowering the level at which creativity can be expressed. Disney (excluding Miramax) works in something of the same way in the film industry--but other studios, particularly in independent film, are more open to oddball projects.
The company that's closest to the model I'm envisioning at present is, oddly enough, Microsoft, which allows studios like Bungie and Ensemble a high degree of freedom, with excellent results. Which is not at all what you'd expect from the Evil Empire, is it?
Wednesday, January 29, 2003The Ouevre of Eric Zimmerman
Tuesday, January 28, 2003
First rate and thoughtful interview with Henry Jenkins of MIT today, on the role of games in our culture at Game Critics.
Thursday, January 23, 2003
"There are only 600 people in the world" is a common place, and it often seems to be true. You keep on running into the same people over and over. Of course, the reason for this is that each of us tends to operate in a particular world; if you work for the state department, you meet one group of 600 people, and if you're a game developer, you meet quite a different group.
The thought arises today, because, at Chris Allen's request, I just added a link to Storybuilders in the nav bar at left, under game design. Chris was an investor in Unplugged Games, which I co-founded, and his company, Skotos also licenses the text MUD rights to my game Paranoia.
Storybuilders is a pretty neat site, featuring columns by a number of smart people--including Jessica Mulligan, an online game pioneer--and involved, as I am, with Themis Group, a company that provides community management, consulting, and marketing services for MMGs. Her column, Biting the Hand is great, by the way, and a must read for anyone interested in online games.
But it does go to show that the world is a pretty incestuous place.
Monday, January 20, 2003New Yorker Piece on Sid Sackson
Sid was one of the greatest American game designers of mid-century, designer of Acquire and Bazaar, among others, and author of A GAMUT OF GAMES (now out of print). He's still regarded as a major talent in Germany, where boardgames are taken much more seriously than in the US. He was a sprightly, gnomish little fellow who, when I was a teenager, often showed up at the SPI offices in a trenchcoat and suit, clutching the latest manuscript for the column he wrote for Strategy and Tactics magazine. I last saw him in the mid-80s, when I commissioned a game from him based on Lucas's Willow--the movie cratered, and the game was never published.
Sid was an enthusiastic boardgame collector, and had what was almost certainly the largest and most comprehensive collection of 20th century boardgames in the world. (I believe he had a few 19th century boardgames, but the Liman Collection, now in the hands of the New-York Historical Society, is far more comprehensive on that score.)
For years, Sid and his wife, Bernice, tried to find a university or museum to take their collection--but its historical importance, and the importance of preserving the history of games as games become one of the world's primary entertainment media, apparently escaped the people they contacted. As a result, the collection has now been broken up and sold off. My friend Eric Zimmerman went to the auction and bought a few.
Sunday, January 19, 2003
Now this is interesting; Raph Koster is proposing a "rights of avatars" in a virtual world that corresponds somewhat to the rights of people in the real-world, an attempt to take the Declarations of the Rights of Man and the US Constitution to cyberspace.
Of course, any world that took this seriously would have to also take seriously Jessica Mulligan's statement that "Once a game launches, it is the property of the players, and not of the developers." This is certainly not the attitude of most existing MMG providers.
Virginia Postrel take note. If cyberspace is the future (which I doubt, btw), maybe Koster is on to something important?
Senator Joe Says No
So. . . Err. . . I'm quite often moved to useless creativity. Occasionally, I find myself moved to write song lyrics--not music, mind you; I'm a writer, not a musician. And when Sen. Joe Lieberman and the National Institute on Media and the Family recently issued a "report card" giving the video games industry an "F", I felt moved to write the following.
I'm sitting at the wheel
No no no
I'm sprinting with my gun
No no no
More Columbines, you see
Yes yes yes
No need to fear, my dear
Fine fine fine.
Doubtless too strident. . . Yet I fail to see what could possibly be more innocent than peaceful enjoyment of a game.
Saturday, January 18, 2003
A year ago, I thought Acclaim was turning the corner; they'd raised some money and paid down debt. Apparently things have deteriorated, though--and they were in a bit of a hole even then. Sanctis was an interesting choice--out of NBC Interactive, no real games industry experience, but by all accounts an energentic and smart guy.
Second rank publishers have a hard time of it. The basic problem is that games is a hit-driven industry. All things being equal, the more titles you publish, the greater your odds of getting a major hit to carry the rest of the operation. If you publish only a handful of titles annually, it's a lot riskier. If you're lucky, like Take Two was with Of course, sheer size is no guarantor of success, either. Infogrames, the third largest publisher of PC games (and a fairly minor console game publisher) is very shaky at present. For that matter, given Vivendi's problems, I suspect it would be possible to pry loose their game assets--which include Blizzard, Sierra, and Universal Interactive. Put that together with Infogrames, recapitalize the company, and find some decent management, and you'd have real competition for EA.
Despite all the talk about "interest" in the games industry, though, I've heard no rumors about any of the major media companies looking at something like this, though.
Of course, sheer size is no guarantor of success, either. Infogrames, the third largest publisher of PC games (and a fairly minor console game publisher) is very shaky at present. For that matter, given Vivendi's problems, I suspect it would be possible to pry loose their game assets--which include Blizzard, Sierra, and Universal Interactive. Put that together with Infogrames, recapitalize the company, and find some decent management, and you'd have real competition for EA.
Despite all the talk about "interest" in the games industry, though, I've heard no rumors about any of the major media companies looking at something like this, though.
Thursday, January 16, 2003
This from Digital Media Wire:
Report: Online Gaming More Popular Than Shopping In Asia-Pacific Region
Framingham, Mass. -- In Asia-Pacific countries, more people are going online to play games than to shop, according to a report released by market research firm IDC Research. A survey of 3,600 Internet users across China, Hong Kong, India, Korea, Malaysia and Singapore found that over the past year, the number of online gamers has eclipsed the number of online shoppers in each country. In China, 43 percent of those online play games, compared to only 16 percent who said they shop. "It is a remarkable milestone to have the number of online gamers surpassing online buyers in several countries within one year," said IDC analyst Chin Jun Fwu.
I am so not surprised. Indeed, I give it less than five years before it's true here. My opinion is based on what happened on the commercial online services, where games generated vastly more revenues than online shopping. The Web is a little different, because it's ubiquitous, and conventional mail-order operations can generate revenue just by giving mail-order shoppers an online operation--but nonetheless, games and online are a natural fit. Shopping, by nature, sucks online, where you can't feel the merchandise.
Although I admit, I'm probably spending more money on Fresh Direct these days than I spend on games.
But then, I am a foodie.
Laser Squad Nemesis
Single-player games are a waste of devices built for human communication. There is little use in turning the phone into a video game console - it could be something much more.
Amen to that.
Wednesday, January 15, 2003
Dave Dobson (creator of Snood) writes:
I enjoyed reading your article on puzzle games very much - your analysis of the appeal of puzzles was right on. It's interesting. I actually enjoy all kinds of games, from puzzle to violent shoot-em-ups to sports to
strategy. I wrote Snood mostly because I thought my wife would like it (she does) and the idea of releasing it as a shareware thing came much later. I was actually just procrastinating in graduate school (marine geology) at the time, and I've always enjoyed designing and writing games, so it seemed like fun.
I think those hard-core gamers that dismiss puzzle games don't realize that when their grandparents, parents, mothers, girlfriends, etc. play Snood or Solitaire or Minesweeper for 2-3 hours, they begin to understand
why the hard-core type would play CounterStrike for 2-3 hours also. I know that puzzle games have pulled my wife into game-playing much more than I would have expected.
There's something really neat about games that are simple to learn, have no time pressure (like Snood, some kinds of solitaire, bowling, pool, etc.) in that they open up games to a broader segment of players. I get a lot of mail saying "Snood is great! I play with my grandkids and beat them every time." Pretty cool.
You'll probably get a bunch of mail saying that Snood's not original - it's totally not, and I've never said it was. I did try to tune it very carefully to make it as fun and engaging as possible, and I think I did OK at that. Regardless, it's giving pleasure to a lot of diverse groups ofpeople, including folks who thought computers were only for business. I'm glad you've enjoyed it too.
Tuesday, January 14, 2003Let's Take Over a Cog Building!
My mother used to say: The mark of a great artist is that he changes the way you look at the world.
You have to understand that my mom is the daughter of an illustrator. Part of what she was thinking about was van Gogh, and those strange hallucinogenic colors he used. Or Gaugin, who virtually created the way we think of the South Seas. And part was my grandfather's own illustrations of New England leaf season colors. I have, on my wall, a depiction of the main street crossroads in Freedom, New Hampshire, painted during leaf a season--and it surely has affected how I view the Northeastern fall to this very day.
Mom was thinking of "art" purely in the context of images, of course. She wasn't thinking about games. But maybe she's right; the mark of a great game is that it changes the way you look at the world.
One example: After playing Grand Theft Auto, I found myself walking down the street, looking at cars, and thinking--cool, cop car, I'll take that one. Get out of there, dude, I'm gonna motor . . .
No, I'm not really going yank some poor NYPD shield out of his seat and speed away. Police officers are my friends. . . I think.
Or as another example, see Electric Fun Stuff's song Sim-Hilarities which talks about the experience of feeling, in r/l, like a Sims character--like there's a balloon over your head expressing the need to pee.
A final example: Some weeks ago, I was walking with Karen and stopped in front of a rather hideous 70s-style office building. . . Looked up at it for a moment. . . And said:
"Let's take over a Cog building!"
In all likelihood, you have no idea what I'm talking about. I'm talking about ToonTown, and what I'm saying is, yeah, it changed the way I looked at the world.
It was a big, ugly, grey office building, in an architectural style I don't like. It was a Cog building. I wanted to take it over with some other toons, and turn it back into a pretty, happy, pastel toon building. Whoo hoo!
Unless you are a ToonTown player, you still aren't getting me.
ToonTown is a massively multiplayer roleplaying game. That is, it belongs to the same general category of game as EverQuest and Anarchy Online. Except in ToonTown, you don't play a mighty-thewed barbarian warrior or a cyborged hacker. You play a cartoon rabbit.
Or cat, in my case.
ToonTown was originally conceived by a fellow by the name of Jesse Schell who has since left Disney and now teaches at Carnegie Mellon. Bias alert: When Schell was at Disney, he bought a report on online games I wrote a few years ago, so I'm at least a couple of hundred bucks richer as a result. (I didn't know he was working on ToonTown at the time; it wasn't announced until somewhat later.)
Please understand: I've been playing online games since before there were online games. I played multiplayer games into the wee hours on the Vaxen at the Courant Institute at NYU before there was an Arpanet. I played Gemstone and Air Warrior and Hundred Year's War on the old commercial online services. I was in virtual heaven when EverQuest was released.
Recently. . . I installed Dark Age of Camelot and played it for about a week. I've idly contemplated playing Neocron and AC2. . . But, sigh, it'll just be more of the same old same old. I'll maybe get around to it eventually.
But I love ToonTown.
So what is ToonTown? Oh, crap, check it out; you don't have to subscribe, if you're willing to play under a generic name. It costs you $4.95 a month--no client software cost--if you do decide to become a member. There's no risk.
ToonTown is an MMG in which the players play cartoon characters. Mine is Loopy Marigold Gigglegadget. Say "Hi!" If you see me. No, on second thought, say "It's a bug!" if you see me, and I'll know you're really saying "No, pal, it ain't no bug, but this menuing chat system don't give me the ability to say, 'hey, I read your blog', and so I'm using this choice, irrelevant in context, to express what I really mean, which is 'Iesu Christe, you silly 40something sod, what in god's name are you doing playing this childish game when you could be posting some abstruse intellectual thing to your fucking blog? And by the way, let's go take over a Cog building.'"
Toontown is, in many ways, the same treadmill as most other MMGs: You kill stuff to get better so you can kill bigger stuff and get even better. In this case, though, you are fighting Cogs, nasty business robots, accidentally released by Scrooge McDuck on the populace of Toontown. There are a bunch of different types of cogs, like Pencil Pushers and Spin Doctors. If we toons don't get our act together, they'll turn the whole city into nasty Cog buildings. Luckily, they can't take a joke, and by using "gags" on them--things like seltzer bottles and cream pies--we can make them explode. Of course, they have their own nasty attacks, like doubletalk and fire. When they do damage to you, you lose "laugh points," and if reduced to zero, you become "sad," meaning you return to the nearest playground, lose all your gags, and have to run around until you regain your laugh points.
In addition to fighting Cogs in the streets, you can try to take over a Cog building by entering a Cog building elevator. Cog buildings contain a bunch of Cogs, and it's rarely possible to take one over yourself. Hence, you need to persuade a bunch of other toons to enter the elevator with you. One way to do that is "make friends," which involves clicking on a toon and then on the "make friends" button; if the toon agrees, you then show up on each others' friends list. You can chat remotely with a friend, and also teleport to his location. So typically, you run around until you find a building you want to take over, then message your friends and try to get them to come help you. If you succeed in taking over a Cog building, your portrait appears on the wall inside the building--and if you take over five on a single server, you get a bronze star over your head. (You can also get silver and gold stars by taking over a bunch.)
The implementation of chat is one of Toontown's most interesting features; Disney wants it to be safe for kids, so freeform chat isn't normally permitted. A pretty deep menuing system lets you say about 90% of the things you'd want to say--with a fair bit of variability, too, e.g., there are a dozen ways to say "hello" (Hi!, Hey!, Hiya!, and so on). Additionally, you can email people you know outside the game with a "secret" that, once they enter it in the game, allows the two of you to engage in freeform chat with each other--but you have to know someone outside the game first. This is a little awkward, actually--there are people in the game I'd like to be able to chat with whom I do not know--but whatever, this does ensure nobody's going to be sexually harassing kids or whatnot.
So. . . Why is Toontown so engaging? After all, it's basically the some old MMG treadmill, dressed up in different clothes.
Partly, doubtless, it's because I'm a cartoon nut (though I much prefer Warner Brothers to Disney animation). And because I designed what (I think) was the first game that lets you play cartoon characters. But there are other reasons, too.
For one thing, it's light-hearted. The (generally badly written) backstories to most MMGs are filled with sturm und drang, operatic heroic nonsense. Scrooge McDuck's mistake is a lot more fun. The names of the stores in Toontown are mostly puns (e.g., on Elm Street in Daisy Gardens, there's a shop called "Black-Eyed Susan's Boxing Lessons"). The use of vaudeville gags as attacks is amusing. And another thing: character advancement is much quicker than in most MMGs. After perhaps fifty hours of play, Loopy Marigold is maybe halfway to maxing out--she's just shy the top Throw and Squirt gags, though she still have a ways to go with Drop, Toon Up, and Lure. I can generally get two or three quests (excuse me, Toon Tasks) done in an evening. Even though it's the same treadmill, it doesn't feel quite as much as a grind as being a midlevel character in EQ, say.
Recently, Toontown asked me to complete a survey--soliciting demographic and play pattern information from their users. I did so, and I rather wish I had access to the results. After all, how many users claim that the primary player in their household is a 40something male? I suspect the answer is: A whole lot more than Disney expects. This is a small MMG, by most standards--the world is much more tightly constrained than DAoC or EQ or their ilk. And my guess is that you can max out in two or three months of play. But it is very well done for what it is, and the cost is very reasonable. I'm sure I'm not the only middleaged online gamer who likes it.
Vicky, my eleven year-old, plays it from time to time; Betsy, my fourteen year old, does not. It's too childish for her; if it had Gundam Wing characters, maybe. But that would be a different game. My guess is that the demographics are a lot different from what Disney planned.
As is typical with MMGs, the most interesting moments have been ones when players have either subverted the system, or used it in ways the designers clearly never intended. Two moments I loved:
A toon friend (Perwinkle Doggie, the typo is his) told me to teleport to him once. I did so--and found myself in a featureless plain of grey. He turned, telling me to follow--so I did. After a few minutes of running, I saw, off in the distance, a Gag Shop interior, seen from behind the counter, as if the back wall was missing. We ran into the shop, and found ourselves behind the counter.
Perwinkle showed me how, by walking around the piano in the shop, finding a particular vertex, and jumping while running left and right, you could actually get outside of the world's geography--out where no mortal toon should go--into the features grey of No World.
They've since fixed that bug, unfortunately. They should have left it as an easter egg, if you ask me.
The other moment? I and a couple of other toons had just taken over a Cog building. One of the toons said that he had to go--but rather than teleporting out of the game and closing his client, he simply walked into a corner and stopped. After a while, he began to sleep--little ZZZs over his head. That's what happens in Toontown, if you're idle for too long.
I had to go get some more gags, but then teleported back to my other friend. In my absence, he had pushed the sleeping toon down the sidewalk. Basically, each time you run into a toon, you budge him or her, just a few virtual inches. He had obsessively bumped into the sleeping toon, moving him well down the sidewalk.
And as I watched, he bumped the sleeping toon into the elevator of a Cog building. The door closed.
The outcome was obvious; the toon would go into a fight with the building Cogs, and sit theresleeping, until they "made him sad." He'd teleport to a playground, and stand there sleeping, until the player returned. And the player would doubtless wonder how he had gotten there, and why all his gags were gone.
Kind of nasty, really--but rather inspired of the other toon to think of this.
I am beginning to burn out on Toontown; as with all these games, after a while it's the same thing all over again (and I've at least seen all the gags, now, though I still can't use some). And I really need to check out There and Sims Online. But I'm still In Toon, and will be for a while, I suspect. It's not hugely innovative--except in taking the basic MMG paradigm to a different environment--but it is very nicely done.
Monday, January 13, 2003Why Snood Gets No Respect
Last year at GDC, I had a conversation with a fellow who maintained that Tetris wasn't really a game. The claim was silly, of course; I think even he realized it. It was a rhetorical strategy on his part; he was trying to maintain that games are a story-telling medium (a notion I discuss here) and Tetris is a clear demonstration that not all games are about story.
But his attitude illustrates the point I want to make today; he could plausibly deny Tetris the monicker of "game"--because games like Tetris get no respect.
You don't see simple, engaging puzzle games on the cover of Next Generation. Their creators are not keynote speakers at GDC. PC Gamer does not fete them as among the top 20 game developers in the world. . .
. . .even though these games are probably played more than any conventional PC or console title.
Tetris was the game that originally sold GameBoy, the single hit game that convinced people to buy the device. These days, you can't sell puzzle games like Tetris on a commercial basis--awfully hard to get retailers to stock them, when the competition is $70m-budget
Back when Tetris launched, it was a big deal--and its creator, Alex Pajitnov, became a game celeb. As far as I know, he's produced nothing since, but works quite happily as a researcher for Microsoft.
Which brings us to Snood.
You've either played it obsessively--or you've never heard of it.
The 9th Most Played Game in the World
In 2001, Jupiter Media Metrix, the now semi-defunct web research company, did a survey of computer users to determine what games they played most--not a best-sellers list, which measures what games people are buying now, but a list of the games people actually play on home computers.
Unsurprisingly, the games you get with Windows came in first--Solitaire, Free Cell, and so on. Out of the top fifteen games, in fact, only four were what we think of as PC games--The Sims at #8, Roller Coaster Tycoon at #11, StarCraft at #12, and Age of Empires at #15. You'd recognize all the other games on the list...
Except for #9. Snood. Snood!?
If you want, you can skip the rest of this post, and check it out. It's available for PC, Mac, WinCE, Palm--and GameBoy. I believe there's a J2ME version for mobile phones, too.
Vas ist das Snood?
Well, it's a puzzle game, in the sense of Tetris, as opposed to Zork. But the gameplay is utterly unlike Tetris.
In Snood, you control a kind of Snood gun at the bottom center of the screen. Above you is a field filled with snoods--little monster heads that come in six different colors. In the ammo bin of your gun is one snood, of one color. You aim it, moving the mouse, and shoot it into the array of snoods above you. If it hits a group of snoods, making three or more in the process, those snoods disappear. Sometimes, snoods below that group hang, with no other support--and they fall down, too. You gain points for making snoods disappear or fall.
You also get to see what snood will get loaded into your ammo bin next, so maybe you can preplan your scheme of snood destruction.
The objective, obviously, is to clear the screen of snoods. But each time you shoot a snood, a "danger" bar increments. When it's full, all the snoods drop down one space. And if they reach the bottom of the screen, you lose. Making snoods drop--not disintegrating them, but making them fall when you disintegrate snoods from which they hang--decrements your danger bar.
Snood can be played at a number of difficulty levels, from "Child" to "Evil"--or in "Journey" mode, in which the difficulty increases by one level each time you clear a screen. In these modes, starting screens are generated randomly. But in addition, there is "Puzzle" mode, in which each level is pre-designed, and each presents a planned challenge. There are, in fact, an amazing 1100 puzzle levels--at least, if you pay your $15 shareware fee.
Okay, So What?
You're surely not going to stop playing Counterstrike for this. But that's not really the point. The point is that this game is played more than Counterstrike. The Jupiter report is a couple of years old, but still: It's played more than almost any other game in the universe, leaving aside the free games you get with Windows.
People love this game.
Which leads to two questions: Why? And why isn't it, and its creator, Dave Dobson, accorded the same respect and recognition as the creators of (dare we say it) less popular games, like Shigeru Miyamoto, Will Wright, and Sid Meier?
I'm going to duck the first question, which could be the subject of an essay of its own, and talk about the second.
Why don't some game styles get respect? There's no single answer: the causes emerge from a number of places. Some come out of the business culture; some out of the culture of gamers; and some out of the culture of game developers.
Business first: Except for the GBA version, Snood is not a retail product. It's entirely shareware. This means the review media ignore it, and other games of its type. It also means it doesn't show up on anyone's best-seller list, there are no ads in the zines, and there's no box on the shelf to serve as a billboard for the product. As far as the conventional games industry is concerned, it hardly exists; it just isn't on the landscape. That's a little less true of Bejeweled, say, since it does have a retail edition--but even there, my guess is that far more people have downloaded Bejeweled from RealArcade or the Pop Cap site, or played it on one of the free game sites like Uproar (where it exists under the name of Diamond Mine)--than have ever bought it on CD. For games like this, even when there's a retail SKU, its sales do not reflect the game's true popularity.
As far as hardcore gamers are concerned, Snood almost doesn't exist either. That's not to say that hardcore gamers don't play Snood, or Bejeweled, or other such games. They do, and they play Free Cell and Minesweeper, too. Everyone does. They just don't talk about it. They play these games differently; they're little time-wasting diversions, filling ten minutes before the next meeting, or occupying you when you're too burned out to go slay gnolls in Norrath tonight. When you meet your gamer buddies and they ask what you've been playing, you don't say "this cool game called Solitaire," even if you've spent more time on it in the last week than you have on your last major conventional game purchase. Nor do you even really place Solitaire in the same category as Halo, say.
Gamers tend to talk about games that are part of the canon, a canon largely established by the business end of things, games that come from conventional development teams. Age of Mythology is part of their culture; Snood is not. Snood is just a game, it's not a game. In fact, for gamers, games like Snood are "just a game" in the same way that, for the prevailing culture, all games are "just games".
From my perspective, that's a shame. Snood is a fine game. I've lost very nearly as much time to it as I have to Civilization or NetHack or Diplomacy, and from me, that's high praise indeed. It's a very clever little design. And "little" is not, at least in my vocabulary, a word of denigration: It is far harder to design a good simple game than a good complicated one. It's very hard to make a tightly-constrained game interesting; if I can layer a variety of systems, I can produce a widely variant gamespace, and interesting emergent behaviors almost spontaneously arise. Getting something really compelling out of something as simple as Snood is hard.
I've talked about why the games industry and game players ignore Snood and its ilk; why do game developers ignore it?
Partly, it's a function of tunnel vision. Developers tend to specialize. When a fairly minor innovation in a popular gamestyle arises--bullet time for shooters, say--the whole field takes notice, and hundreds of people start beavering away to incorporate that innovation in their next game. But few developers look far afield for inspiration; if they notice innovation in collectible card games, or German boardgames, or even graphic adventures, they tend to do so years after the aficionados of those game styles have done so.
And partly it's because Snood looks so easy. It's a trivial little game. Any programmer worth his salt could whip up the code for a game like this in a few weeks. Art development wouldn't take any longer. How can you take a game like that seriously? Particularly if you're spending two years developing the codes and assets for a "real" game.
If Snood, like Tetris, was a success in the retail channel, if it, like Tetris was for Gameboy, proved to be the hot title that made a success of a console system, the development community would have to take notice. But this is not 1985, and games like this don't have a prayer in the retail channel. They're relegated to the shadow realm of shareware.
Finally, it's partly because Snood ain't cool. It's a dumb little game your girlfriend plays. It's not a serious ass-kicking triumph of coolth like Counterstrike (I do keep coming back to Counterstrike, don't I?). Or a serious, challenging, vast and involved game of thoughtful strategy like Civ III. Or an amazingly deep combination of story and a rich simulated world like GTA. It's just this. . . little thing. Game developers almost can't take Snood seriously. Its success calls into question their very lives--the long hours spent laboriously building these huge, expensive 3D worlds, these involved software engines with amazing visual effects and complicated AI. If it's all really as simple as Snood, why are they working 60 to 80 hours a week for years at a time?
Game culture is a contemplated interplay among the realities of the business, the attitudes of developers, and the attitudes of gamers. At present, none of the three see a need to pay attention to Snood.
And that's a shame. It's a shame, because it's a fine game, and it would be worth developers' while to try to figure out why, and how to create equally fine games. And it's a shame because even with all of the problems of shareware distribution, Snood has clearly made a lot of money for its creator--more than 7 million downloads and, I have to believe, at least 6 figures in income for Dobson--so it would be worth the industry's while to try to figure out how to replicate its success.
And it's a shame, because people clearly love this game--and it would be worth their while for developers, and the industry, to create more games like this.
For me, Snood is satisfying, because it represents, in some sense, the triumph of design over all the other elements that go into game development. It is compelling not because of the elegance and complexity of its code, or the beauty of its visuals, but because the gameplay just carries you on. But I also can't, I think, rely on Dobson to produce more of its kind; I suspect he lucked into the design. The history of games is filled with one-hit wonders, designers who create one great game and never do anything else worthwhile. Alex Pajitnov, for one. Gary Gygax, for another.
Pop Cap is at least trying to mine the simple puzzle game vein--but nothing they've done since Bejeweled has been quite as fine. And hardly anyone else seems to be trying.
It's a hard row to hoe, in any event. Designing good, simple games is hard. And the business is stacked against you.
But I, at least, will be looking out for the next great Snood. Games are weird, and you never know. . . And until then, when I have a few minutes to kill, I'll be trying to better my score at Journey level.
The Arcade Predates Pong
In email, Sean Timarco Baggaley says:
I don't think we're doing our industry any favours by pretending that arcade games began with 'Pong'. The term "Arcade Game" originally applied to games found in [shopping] arcades -- the original UK English term for what is now known as a 'shopping mall'.
Arcade gaming as a phenomenon has actually been around since the Victorian age, with mechanical games machines slowly evolving into electro-mechanical, electrical and finally wholly electronic forms. There is a clear progression from the Victorian games that first appeared at seaside resorts to today's arcades. From "What The Butler Saw" machines found by the seaside in the 1900s, right through to the "personal cinemas" -- essentially TVs in a closed cabinet -- that play Warner Bros. cartoons to willing children today. (Rare now, but not extinct.)
There is also a clear link between those early resort towns and today's theme parks and major resorts. The Victorians introduced the whole concept of free time and holidays to the masses. Many fun-fairs and circuses gradually grew, stopped moving around and settled down, forming the nucleus of many of today's theme parks. Arcade games were originally those smaller funfair/resort games which could be installed in convenient niches in shopping arcades -- a relatively new concept in themselves as the masses now found they had money to spare for luxuries. In the past, these people had to entertain themselves. Then came the Industrial Revolution, and suddenly, the popular entertainment industry was born.
I think we do a disservice to ourselves by ignoring the pre-electronic period of our industry; not least because it makes the reason for the decline of arcade games blatantly obvious: look at the early days of arcade games and popular entertainment and you'll see that today's gaming arcades aren't competing merely with each other, but also with the modern-day fun fair: the theme park. Many of Disneyland/world's rides today are little more than arcade games writ large. How can a cheaply-built arcade machine compete with those?
Er, anyway. I'll shut up now.
Sean's right, of course, and the influence of earlier arcade amusements on the game industry is well documented (if I recall correctly, Game Over has a long chapter on the subject). What isn't as well documented--and something I expect I'll have to write about, at some point--is the influence that the hobby games industry--wargames and roleplaying games--has had on the field, particularly on PC (rather than console) games. In my view, three game media have had a huge influence on the shape of the modern games industry: the conventional mass-market boardgame industry, hobby games, and the arcade.
So, in following various links, I find Henry Jenkins, a professor at MIT with an interest in game studies, declaring games The New Lively Art.
As I've said, the culture is waking up to this... It's in the zeitgeist, to borrow Karen's word.
Sunday, January 12, 2003Talk Like a Gamer
It's a bit long to include the whole thing here; but this is an excerpt:
In an online game roleplaying generally means speaking consistently in character, e.g.,:
Player 1: hey bitch gimme buffs
Player 2: Sirrah! Dost thou address a lady thus?
Player 2 is roleplaying; Player 1 is not.
Some games have separate gameworlds devoted to roleplayers and to power gamers--those who play primarily to become more powerful in the game world and can't be bothered with such fripperies as pseudo-Elizabethan chat. Power gamers seek to power level, increase in ability in the game quickly--often with the help of a more powerful character who provides buffs to allow the character to gain experience rapidly. This practice is called twinking--gaining quickly in power or level in a semi-illegitimate fashion through assistance from a more powerful character. The term is obviously derived from Twinkie, but the association with a sugary snack is not obvious--I surmise that the usage may come from gay slang, in which a "twinkie" is a cute young man with an older lover.
In email, Rich Bartle (co-creator of the original MUD) notes:
I notice that you refer to the prevailing attitude that Grand
Theft Auto isn't art. This may be true in general, but in the UK at
least it's being recognised as design. It's one of the finalists in
the prestigious "Designer of the year Awards" we have here. See
I found out about this nomination through an award in the supposedly
liberal daily newspaper I read. The headline there, "Lurid computer game
joins design prize shortlist" is perhaps more representative of public
Added an RSS feed, registered with Userland. File is in the same directory as this blog (www.costik.com/weblog); filename is blogger_rss.xml.
Saturday, January 11, 2003Games * Design * Art * Culture
Blogs tend to fall into three categories: online diaries; lists of cool stuff the author found on the Web; and places for someone to ride a hobby horse. This one falls into the third category.
In this case, I hope my hobby horse is something other people will find interesting.
Essentially, I want to talk about games, and game design, as art. I'll be posting essays, such as this one, talking about the field, about specific things I've encountered, and about business trends in the games industry. I'll also be posting looks at particular games--and not necessarily hot titles in the field, either. That's because I'm more interested in what's innovative than what's hot.
Why is this a hobby horse of mine? Largely because I've been trying to promote the idea that games are an artform since I was a teenager, when I first started designing them professionally. Also because the rest of the world, both inside and outside the game industry, is starting to realize the validity of the idea--with increasing academic attention to games, increasing press coverage of them, and an increasing interest among game developers in thinking about design on a theoretical level. And finally, because so much nonsense is written about games that I think there needs to be a venue for a viewpoint that both values games and realizes their limitations--and the often stringent limitations of the sometimes soul-crushing engine we call the games industry.
The idea that games are art has its critics, both outside and inside the game industry. Let's take the two in order.
The main objection of non-gamers to the idea that games are art lies, in essence, in contempt for games. How can these degraded, violent, flashy little entertainments for adolescent boys possibly be spoken of in the same breath with Michelangelo and Dante?
The first counter to that argument is to point out that games are a popular artform; they are not high art. It's possible to conceive of a game that might qualify as high art, but it's unlikely to receive widespread distribution at present, for many reasons: the industry is unlikely to publish such a thing; the culture of gamers would be likely to reject it; and the "art culture" is unlikely to accept such a thing as valid either.
The distinction between popular (or low) art and high art is an arbitrary one, anyway. Classical music is high; popular music is low. Gallery art is high; illustration is low. Realistic novels are high; genre novels are low. And so on. In essence, to qualify as "high art," a work has to be ostensibly non-commercial (though I assure you that gallery artists are quite as interested in money as, say, comics illustrators); it has to belong to one of several artforms that has a long history and which academia has accepted as being legitimate art; and the broad public has to accept it as "art."
In reality, of course, the most vibrant artforms of any particular era are often the most despised. As an example, at the turn of the last century, Gilbert Seldes wrote The Seven Lively Arts, which put forth the then-controversial notion that forms such as jazz, film, vaudeville, and comics were vibrant, exciting, artforms--urban and active in nature, unlike earlier forms, which were largely pastoral and passive. Of the forms he studied, some (like vaudeville) have largely disappeared; others, like film and jazz, have been accorded recognition as "art"; and others, like comics, remain in the low art netherworld.
If you were to write a Seven Lively Artsfor the 21st century, the form you'd have to mention first is clearly games. Games are the mainstay of entertainment for our youth, and increasingly played by people in their 20s, 30s, and older. They're the second or third or fourth largest entertainment market (depending on how you count). They're the only successful form of interactive entertainment. They put forth the most impressive and astonishing examples of interactive 3D, interactive music, and emergent behavior. They're the things that press most processors to their limits--more so than virtually any kind of application other than graphics programs. And virtually every year sees astonishing innovation and change in the field--in design as well as technology.
Forty years ago, most teenagers fantasized about working in film--as my film professor once said, their ambitions depended mainly on class. Lower class kids wanted to be actors; middle class kids wanted to be directors; and upper class kids wanted to be producers. Today, most teenagers fantasize about working in games.
To paraphrase the gay rights movement, games are here, games are queer; get used to it.
But to get back to the criticism: Games are flashy, degraded, violent little entertainments for adolescent boys. Right?
Hardly. Go to the Interactive Digital Software Association site, and download their demographic information. Most gamers are over 18. PC gamers skew even older than console gamers. The average age of gamers increases year by year. I'll talk about why in another essay, perhaps. And almost 50% of games are bought by women.
That doesn't mean that 50% of the people playing games at this very instant are women, of course; some female purchasers are doubtless buying games for the men (or boys) in their lives. But women do play games--more than half of the people playing on sites like Pogo.com or Uproar are female, for instance. Something like 30% of the players of massively multiplayer games are women. And virtually all of the players of Pern MUSHes are female.
Games aren't just for teenage boys any more.
Flashy? Generally, yes; digital games are a visual medium (board and cardgames less so). Flash sells.
Degraded? That's a value judgment, isn't it?
Violent? Yes, to a degree. But also no, to a degree. Go play Roller Coaster Tycoon, and tell me how violent it is. Or Dance Dance Revolution. Many games are violent--some very violent. But then, so are many movies. And many novels. The role of violence in games is worth talking about it (and I do here)--but it's not something that characterizes games as a whole, any more than it characterizes film as a whole.
The argument from outside the field--that games cannot be art, because they are degraded--is an argument from ignorance. You don't have to like games--but nor can you legitimately criticize them until you are familiar with them. (Personally, I loathe television as a medium--but I'm quite familiar with it. Hard to grow up in America without being familiar. And I would never argue that television can't be art--or even that there isn't any good stuff on TV. Merely that the conditions of the medium mitigate against the production of good work.)
The argument from within the field is somewhat more rational. The main argument is: God forbid we should start to think of ourselves as artistes. A designer who claims to be an artist is going to fight tooth and nail with other members of the team who want to muddy "his vision." A team that thinks they're producing art is going to produce fancy-schmancy crap instead of cool stuff people want to play. Fuck art! Let's rock!
Sure. I agree, to a degree. But this is fundamentally a straw man. A game designer unwilling to collaborate with the rest of the team, incorporate their visions, and get everyone excited about contributing their best effort to that shared vision is a game designer who should be fired. This is a collaborative medium, and even if, in some sense, the game designer functions as the artistic lead, the rest of the team--the technical lead and art director in particular--are at least as much responsible for the ultimate quality of the game as he. This isn't so strange; film is a collaborative medium, too. So is music. It's--well, not impossible, perhaps, but very difficult--for any single individual to create some kinds of art. Conceiving of your endeavor as the production of art does not, in se, prevent collaboration.
As to the "Fuck art! Let's rock!" argument--well, I would argue that the Ramones were among the greatest artists emerging in the 70s. They've had a huge influence on subsequent music, and remain very listenable (and danceable) today. "Fuck art! Let's rock!" Sure, amen. That's an attitude that can produce really great art.
Great popular art, at the very least. And there's not a goddamn thing wrong with that.
High art is dead art. It's art that gets show in museums, played in symphony halls, buried in dusty tomes. It's worth preserving for the sake of the continuity of our culture, and because a self-selected elite loves it. But it's museum art, it's museum music, it's museum prose. All those silly wine-swilling artists in Soho; all those academic musicians composing "new" symphonies; all those university professors writing novels, stuck in academia because they can't make enough money to survive from their actual writing--they have a role to play in our culture, of course, but what they're doing isn't really very interesting.
Low art is what's fundamentally important. Low art reflects what's actually going on in our culture today. Low art expands the boundaries of the possible. Low art is vital, exciting, vibrant, disturbing, cool--and, generally, fun. Popular music, genre fiction, comics, independent film, weird shit on the Internet--and games.
That's where it's at, man.
This is a dumb argument. Games are art. Most of them are bad art, to be sure.
I don't want to get into an argument about "what is art?" I'm not a drunken college student, any more. But let me suggest this: Painting is a craft. Interactive design is a craft. Writing is a craft. Art is merely craft applied with conscience and care. If you use the craft of painting to create an interesting image instead of a clean-looking wall, you're making art. Use your writing skill to write a story instead of technical documentation--it's art. Use your interactive design skill to create a game instead of an e-commerce site--welcome to the high-falutin' world of art, you effeminate intellectual, you.
You don't have to agree with me... But this argument is fundamental to everything else that's going to appear here. This blog is going to treat games as art. Everything else follows.