Geek Effect

Have you heard of the TV show, TableTop? If not, I expect you are in the vast majority of the population. It’s one of the shows on Felicia Day’s YouTube channel, Geek & Sundry. It’s like celebrity poker, except that instead of poker, they play better games, like Settlers of Catan, Shadows Over Camelot, and Zombie Dice. The celebrities aren’t your typical Hollywood movie stars or pop singers. They tend to be a bit geekier: voice actors, game designers, fantasy authors, and weblebrities. Oh, and the show is hosted by Wil Wheaton.

The interesting thing is, the show is gaining a following. It’s an awesome way to find out about great games. I’ve purchased several that I’ve seen on the show. You may be thinking, “Okay, but how popular can it really be? It’s not on cable.” I present Exhibit A.

A few weeks ago, the show featured the game Betrayal at House on the Hill. It’s a really cool, cooperative game that plays differently every time, allowing the players to randomly build a mansion with room tiles as they play. Eventually, one of the players turns out to be the bad guy, and things get hectic. The game was originally published in 2004. It typically sells for about $50.

Within a matter of days after the episode aired, the game could not be found. It was listed as out of stock at every on-line retailer that carried it. Amazon was listing it for well over $100 in “other buying options”, and people were trying to sell it for similar prices on Ebay. People were posting questions to boardgamegeek.com and other sites, asking if it was out of print. One of the designers of the game answered a question on Amazon:

Hi, I’m the designer of the game. I was concerned about all the rumors here, so I checked with the publisher. She told me that 5000 copies of the game had been sent to distributors during Q4, but some of the larger distributors may have sold out theirs already due to the Tabletop coverage. There are more on the way, though, and I suspect that some of the smaller places and local stores may still have copies available, so you shouldn’t need to start scavenging quite yet!

Amazon had restocked the game earlier this week, but they are already sold out again. If you ask me, that’s a pretty good indication that a YouTube channel is a viable competitor to traditional media. 

Obduction

I’m taking a short break from my series on hunting unicorns for this public service announcement.

Back in the day, there was an amazing little game called Myst. It had graphics like I’d never seen before with little embedded animations—just enough to give the static world a little life. The artwork, music, and sound effects put me in the world like no experience had done before. I loved that game. It played to my natural desire to explore new places. A couple years later, they kicked things up several notches with the sequel, Riven. I still consider it to be one of the best video game experiences I’ve ever had. The attention to detail, like the inclusion of bugs in the environment, was phenomenal. When I listen to the soundtrack, it puts me right back in the apartment I was living in while attending graduate school at CMU, sitting up late into the night, when I finally found my way to “the tree”. I’m proud of the fact that I was able to solve all the puzzles in that game without a single hint.

URU, Cyan’s MMORPG based on Myst, unfortunately failed, and the company has kept things low-key since then. They have released versions of their games on iOS, but that’s it. I was extremely excited to learn today that their fans have talked them into funding a new game through Kickstarter. They are looking to raise $1,100,000 by November 16th. They’re almost half way there as I write this. Obduction isn’t a sequel to Myst, but is a new game in the same vein.

The end has not yet been written.

Amnesia Fortnight

Every year, Double Fine Productions takes two weeks to prototype a handful of game concepts, throws them at the wall, and sees what sticks. They call the event Amnesia Fortnight.

This normally-secretive process is named “Amnesia” because the entire team at Double Fine forgets what they’re working on, and “Fortnight” because it lasts for two weeks. During this time the company is divided into smaller teams, and each team must make a game in those two weeks.

Amnesia Fortnight was held in December, and this year they opened it to the public. Each potential project leader pitched their idea not only to Double Fine, but to the internet. The internet then voted on the concepts, selecting five that would be developed over the two-week period:

  • Hack ‘n’ Slash is a Zelda-style RPG that incorporates computer programming as a game mechanic. For example, you can jack into an enemy and edit their hit point attribute, killing them by setting it to zero.
  • Spacebase DF-9 is a systems-based simulation game in which you build and manage a space station. Check up on the inhabitants by reading entries in their social networking platform, SpaceFace.
  • The White Birch was inspired by Ico and Journey. Jump and climb through a beautiful environment.
  • Autonomous presents you with a Tron-like junkyard full of robot parts. Combine parts to create automatons that will carry out tasks.
  • Black Lake is a dark, but beautiful game world in which plants and animals are corrupted by nightmare.

The entire process was documented by 2 Player Productions in a series of 12 films, beginning with the pitches and following the teams as they turn the ideas into playable games. The films and the games are being sold through Humble Bundle. I didn’t actually find out about the whole thing until after the holidays, but I picked up the bundle in January, and I’ve been watching the films. They’re very well done, and I wish I had the time to show every one of them to my class. So many of the points made in Jesse Schell’s book, The Art of Game Design, are played out in front of the cameras. I haven’t played the games yet, as I want to finish watching the films first, but the more I see, the more anxious I am to try them out. I think there is a lot to be learned here about not just game development, but software development and general creative process and innovation.

If you have an interest in game design, I recommend checking it out. The downloadable version is only $9.99.

Games in the Making

We’re well into the semester now, and my students have divided into six teams, each team designing a different game. There is quite a variety, and I’m pleased with the ideas so far.

  1. Monster Morph is a card game inspired by Pokémon and Gloom. There will be battles between creatures with special powers, but it will incorporate Gloom’s transparent modifier card mechanic to morph the attributes of the monsters during play. If done right, this should result in more emergent behavior.
  2. Storm Chasers will be a single-player video game in which you try to capture the best quality footage of storms, as well as relevant weather data, while avoiding mishaps. Current plans include upgradable vehicles and equipment, educational content, and a social sharing aspect.
  3. Bridezilla is a board game that has players competing to be the Maid of Honor. The bride has a lot of tasks for her bridesmaids to help with, and everything must be perfect for her big day. The game has a race-to-the-finish dynamic, but the team is currently considering various ways to make it non-linear, introducing strategic choices for more interesting gameplay.
  4. Top Newscaster is a party game with a Cranium sort of vibe. Players are trying to get a lead anchor role, and to do so, they have to complete challenges such as reading silly news stories with a professional, straight face, or making up the facts of a story to go along with a random series of images.
  5. Pillage the Village flips the cliché dragon fairytale on its head by putting players in the role of the dragons. The goal is to collect the largest hoard of gold and gems by successfully selecting and attacking the wealthiest towns. Watch out for knights!
  6. Carnival is a murder mystery inspired by the game Clue. Of course, it takes place in a sinister carnival, rather than a mansion, and the team is currently working on ideas to make it less derivative while keeping the excitement of uncovering clues and trying to identify the murderer.

Preserve Us

2012 saw the Smithsonian Art Museum curate The Art of Video Games exhibition, which was a fantastic undertaking, but it pales in significance compared to the latest news from the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). Paola Antonelli, Senior Curator, first appeared on my radar when she gave a keynote presentation at Interaction 10, the same year in which the museum acquired the @ symbol. This struck me as a profound change in the role of a museum. Antonelli described it thusly:

“(The acquisition) relies on the assumption that physical possession of an object as a requirement for an acquisition is no longer necessary, and therefore it sets curators free to tag the world and acknowledge things that “cannot be had”—because they are too big (buildings, Boeing 747’s, satellites), or because they are in the air and belong to everybody and to no one, like the @—as art objects befitting MoMA’s collection.”

On the 29th, she announced the acquisition of fourteen video games, the first set in a wish list of about forty they intend to collect in the near future. Unlike the Smithsonian’s exhibit, however, the games were not selected for their artistic merits, but as “outstanding examples of interaction design”. To that end, they are selecting games based on traits such as behavior, aesthetics, space, and time. But even that is not the most significant aspect of this acquisition.

I have been concerned for several years now about the documentation and preservation of the history of interaction design. With technology progressing at such a rapid rate, even the UI prototypes I produced a few years ago will not run properly on my current operating system. My student work would pretty much require reimplementation to display properly. This same issue doubly applies to video games as I wrote about a year ago. As a part of this new acquisition, the MoMA has had to develop a protocol for preserving the games.

“Working with MoMA’s digital conservation team on a protocol, we have determined that the first step is to obtain copies of the games’ original software format (e.g. cartridges or discs) and hardware (e.g. consoles or computers) whenever possible. In order to be able to preserve the games, we should always try to acquire the source code in the language in which it was written, so as to be able to translate it in the future, should the original technology become obsolete. This is not an easy feat, though many companies may already have emulations or other digital assets for both display and archival purposes, which we should also acquire. In addition, we request any corroborating technical documentation, and possibly an annotated report of the code by the original designer or programmer. Writing code is a creative and personal process. Interviewing the designers at the time of acquisition and asking for comments and notes on their work makes preservation and future emulation easier, and also helps with exhibition content and future research in this field.”

I applaud the forward thinking of Paola and her staff, and I look forward to the application of this protocol to other interactive works, from websites to desktop and mobile applications, and even operating systems. Our digital heritage should be preserved for future generations of designers to learn from, and this is exactly the approach that must be taken to do so.

Ingress

Yesterday, I said I was recently made aware of two games that bleed into our physical existence, but I only told you about Journey To The End Of The Night. The second game, Ingress, was launched by Google on November 15th. AllThingsD interviewed John Hanke, former director of geo at Google, who is now leading an internal start-up team called Niantic Labs.

“The concept is something like World of Warcraft, where everyone in the world is playing the same game,” Hanke said. Players are on one of two teams: “The Enlightened,” who embrace the power, or “The Resistance,” who fight the power. Anyone can play from anywhere in the world, though in more densely played areas there will be more local competition for resources.

Players collect “XM” by walking along paths in the real world, much like a living version of Pac-Man. These points can then be spent to go on missions to virtual portals that are tied to physical spaces and objects, like sculptures, monuments, and public buildings. The game designers’ goals are to promote physical activity and to push people out into their communities, making them aware of their surroundings with a different perspective—identical to Journey To The End Of The Night’s goals.

Of course, this game is facilitated by software on your Android phone (and eventually on your glasses?), and they are partnering with several commercial interests to include stores and products in the game. It wouldn’t be Google if there weren’t some form of advertising involved.

This type of game has a lot of potential, and Google is planning to turn it into a platform for other developers to play with. It is remarkably close to a concept I’ve been toying with. I would definitely give it a try were it available on the iPhone. Alas, I’ll have to experience it vicariously through the reports of others.

My Intent to Break the Law

Thanks to a fictional article from a British tabloid, people are thinking about what happens to our digital media when we die. I’ve spent quite a lot of money on music, movies, TV shows, audiobooks, ebooks, games, and applications. The typical service agreement states that you haven’t purchased a copy of the file, as you do when you buy physical media, but a license to use it. This license expires when you do. So, it is unlawful to give your digital media to somebody else, regardless of whether or not you are in a position to use it. I have a problem with this.

First of all, the fact that a song or book is a digital file on my hard drive, rather than ink on paper or even a file on a CD, should make no difference whatsoever. I can pass my printed books, CDs, and DVDs on to my children; why shouldn’t I do the same with the digital versions? The distinction is nonsensical.

Furthermore, my digital media is now a conglomeration of purchases from iTunes and Amazon mixed with ripped CDs. And, since I’ve subscribed to iCloud Music Match, many of the ripped tracks have been replaced with Apple’s files.

So, I have every intention of leaving my media library, physical and digital, to my family members. Given that most of those files have no DRM, I don’t believe there will be any way for said companies to know. That said, I fully believe that by the time I die, digital rights and service agreements will advance to treat digital media more like we currently treat physical media. So, don’t sue me just yet.

Indie Game, The Movie

I took some time out yesterday morning to watch Indie Game, The Movie. To be honest, I started watching it while eating breakfast, and I had intended to get up and do the dishes while I continued watching it, but it completely sucked me in, and I spent the majority of my morning on the couch. This is an outstanding film, but first, a little background.

I seem to be talking about Kickstarter quite a bit lately. Well, here we go again. The film’s producers, James Swirsky and Lisanne Pajot, reached their goal of $15,000 in only 48 hours. After two months, they had raised $23,341 from 297 backers. That was in July of 2010. During the following two years, they shot over 300 hours of footage, and in January, 2012, they won Best Editing within the Sundance World Cinema Documentary Competition. I only learned of the film a few months ago myself when they started taking pre-orders. Indie Game released on June 12th.

Here’s the description of the film from the Sundance Film Festival:

With the twenty-first century comes a new breed of struggling independent artist: the indie game designer. Refusing to toil for major developers, these innovators independently conceive, design, and program their distinctly personal games in the hope that they, too, may find success.

After two years of painstaking work, designer Edmund McMillen and programmer Tommy Refenes await the release of their first major game for Xbox, Super Meat Boy—the adventures of a skinless boy in search of his girlfriend, who is made of bandages. At PAX, a major video-game expo, developer Phil Fish unveils his highly anticipated, four-years-in-the-making FEZ. Jonathan Blow considers beginning a new game after creating Braid, one of the highest-rated games of all time.

First-time filmmaking duo Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky capture the emotional journey of these meticulously obsessive artists who devote their lives to their interactive art. Four developers, three games, and one ultimate goal— to express oneself through a video game. 

The film gives a fly-on-the-wall view into the realities of independent game development while telling very personal stories about the people involved. It had me routing for their success, dreading their possible failure, and fantasizing about throwing my career away to gamble on my own FEZ-equivalent (as if I have any knowledge about how to program a game).

If you are interested in game design, independent development, or just love documentaries, I highly recommend it. It’s available from their website, as well as on Steam and the iTunes store.

TableTop

I’ve fallen in love with Will Wheaton’s new show, TableTop, on Geek & Sundry. It’s the kind of thing that a television network would never fund. “Who would want to watch a bunch of geeks sitting around a table playing board games?” This is the kind of thing that’s going to eventually allow me to drop cable. Will and his guests are entertaining, and the show has high production values (cheap, reusable trophy aside). With my interest in game design, I’ve very much enjoyed learning about a number of games I’ve not played before. In fact, I’ve turned my whole family onto the show, and they just gave me Munchkin and Small World for Father’s Day. I’d love to know if there has been a noticeable bump in sales of the games they have featured. After all, to the game publishers, it’s basically a 30-minute commercial. I assume Geek & Sundry is trying to capitalize on this—they do provide purchase links to the games on Amazon, so are likely collecting their Amazon Associates kickback, but I know that’s not the mechanism by which my wife ordered the games.

The Art of Video Games: Videos

The new Smithsonian exhibit, The Art of Video Games, has finally opened. I don’t think I’ll have a chance to catch it while it’s running—through September 30th—which is a shame, because I’m quite interested in the subject. However, I wanted to make you all aware of some great resources that the Smithsonian has made available online. There is a series of videos, including interviews with some of the greatest game designers of all time. Nolan Bushnell, founder of Atari and one of the fathers of the computer gaming industry is featured heavily. Don Daglow, creator of the first computer-based role playing game, not to mention Neverwinter Nights, the first graphical MMORPG, is also interviewed. There are nine featured interview videos in all. There is also a series of five exhibition videos on the themes Beginnings, Inspiration, Narrative, Experience, and The Future. There is an interview with the exhibit curator, Chris Melissinos, and a trailer for the exhibit. You can access them all in one place.