Social Games and Misused Terms

19 01 2009

http://flickr.com/photos/pulguita/2868952310/

Some excellent stuff from Tadhgk Kelly, formerly of Sky Games but now working for Nottingham startup Simple Lifeforms, on Social Games. He points out that “social games” is a term used as lazily as casual games was a few years ago, and has this excellent piece of insight on them:

The single most defining feature of a true social game is social gameplay. What does that mean?

[…]

Social gameplay? It tests your social skills.

So a social game is one in which your social activities with other players (trading, dating, lying, flirting, charming, imploring, cajoling, whatever) actually matter. Many games have socialising (such as chat) as a part of their overall framework, but those social activities don’t really matter to how you play. World of Warcraft is a good example of this. Every player in the game has a character, but if you actually watch games in progress, 95% of the time players do not bother to play in character. There’s no test or reward for doing so.

“Social” is a really lazy buzzword being thrown around a lot right now, but it could mean something vital and unique to certain types of game. As of now, Tadhgk is right about them. Games I’ve played on Facebook such as Packrat are some of the most asocial experiences to be had on the site.

(CC image by pulguita)

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Browsable Games

16 01 2009

zork

I read on Gamasutra today that the classic, harsh text adventure Zork is returning as a browser based MMO. Similar things have already bee attempted, such as the bot running classic text adventures at the Idle Thumbs Forums, and they’re a good place to go if you want a quick look at just how obtuse and punitive these games could be.

Not only does this seem utterly bizarre, but they’ll probably have to dumb it down to make it acceptable to a modern audience.

Everything seems to be heading to the browser right now. I was shown a demo of the hugely impressive Unity engine at an academic conference last summer, developers like FlashBang have been consistently knocking out interesting games with it, and the company is attracting talent.

iD currently have Quake Live in beta, and it’s basically Quake 3 running in a browser. There have been similar demos out for a while, for instance an only occasionally up demo of a simple Unreal Tournament level running in shockwave was doing the rounds a few years ago.

Some of the first FPS games to lead into professional gaming leagues, that required a pretty hefty gaming rig a decade ago, are now simple enough to pipe through a browser. This is going to be an incredible new thread by which to acclimatise people to gaming, as well as encourage invention. How long before games like Katamari Damacy and De Blob appear online first?





LRB: Good, Cultural Games Commentary

8 01 2009

http://flickr.com/photos/marfis75/2459534903/

This week, the London Review of Books have an excellent article by John Lanchester about games. It’s intelligent analysis of games for non-gamers, full of assumptions about the LRB audience but none whatsoever that they understand what games are. It’s full of considered analysis of what games are and what they mean, using examples like Bioshock, Resident Evil 4, The Movies and LittleBigPlanet to make a case for the cultural significance of games.

Northrop Frye once observed that all conventions, as conventions, are more or less insane; Stanley Cavell once pointed out that the conventions of cinema are just as arbitrary as those of opera. Both those observations are brought to mind by video games, which are full, overfull, of exactly that kind of arbitrary convention. Many of these conventions make the game more difficult. Gaming is a much more resistant, frustrating medium than its cultural competitors. Older media have largely abandoned the idea that difficulty is a virtue; if I had to name one high-cultural notion that had died in my adult lifetime, it would be the idea that difficulty is artistically desirable. It’s a bit of an irony that difficulty thrives in the newest medium of all

The “Is It Art?” title is a bit cringe worthy for developers who’ve perpetually lived through that debate in the industry, but it’s the exact kind of coverage games need outside the industry. I had some issues with the author 18 months ago when he claimed that the moral outcry over Bully was justified in a piece about the banning of Manhunt 2, but even back then he came across as very much on the side of games.

Millions of Wii owners do widen the audience of games, but they alone do not make them into a well cemented, rounded part of the cultural landscape. They help, but John is the kind of writer they need in order to progress in more than just an economic sense.

(via Infovore)

(CC image by marfis75)





Sense of Wonder

11 12 2008

http://flickr.com/photos/trackybirthday/257419001/

I’ve been slowly (too slowly) working my way through these Sense of Wonder Night videos from TGS. It’s a great bunch of strange indie concepts and prototypes, including current belles Pixel-Junk Eden and The Unfinished Swan as well as a lot of more obscure prototypes, like Depict, where you have to reproduce things with a phone camera:

and Gomibako, which appears to be a Tetris style game involving shoving litter in a bin with physics, then setting fire to it:

(CC image by tracky birthday)





Games Criticism

8 12 2008

Beyond Good and Evil

As I mentioned last week, the relationship of the games press to game developers and gamers is something that has been bothering me a great deal for the past few months. I don’t want to write a lengthy analytical missive pointing out what’s wrong and offering solutions. Opinions on it are two a penny, and mine is that the solution is yet another cultural process that is going to happen automatically.

For decades, games journalism has largely consisted of a small group of dedicated enthusiasts speaking to fellow enthusiasts. This eventually seems to terminate in large scale dedicated news outlets with a high turnover of news; often copy pasted from press releases and refed through truncated RSS feeds designed to drive ad impressions. The sum total of all that effort is to create a news source which is only worth skimming over, much as the writers seem to have skimmed over their own sources.

There are scant examples of people digging beyond press releases. Hit Self Destruct did a little digging here on recent events at NCsoft (as well as saying a whole lot about games journalism), and Wonderland mentioned the launch of Sony’s new credit card, which in itself is an horrific non-story, other than the fact not a single other place mentioned the very high APR. In the case of all those other sites, that’s not news reporting, it’s publicity.

When Leigh Alexander recently wrote about possible salary fixing in Montreal, Steve Gaynor jokingly tweeted at her: “What’s this shit, actual journalism? Come on Alexander write a preview or something”.

That’s the thing. Very few people involved are unaware of the dynamic between publisher, developer, and player, and the resulting flaws in games journalism. The games industry is kind of stuck with the culture it built, and cultural change is glacial. The uncomfortable gulf between good reporters and critics who don’t understand games and people with highly specialised knowledge of games who are stuck in the industry is closing, but slowly and naturally rather than in any revolutionary sense.

I already highlighted Tom Armitage and Offworld in the past week, and I’d like to add Duncan Fyfe and Iroquois Pliskin. Both of those posts are specifically about the industry press and criticism, and both are also excellent bloggers.

All media, no matter how long established, still has some tawdry, shallow attendant journalism and reviewing, as well as elitist circles that chatter about the necessity of audience education (Which is sometimes worthy, and sometimes nothing more than an attempt at memetic reproduction). The presence of such extremes and everything inbetween is simply an indicator of a healthy culture. Exactly the same stratification is going to occur with coverage and discussion of games. Just as with every previous form of media, it’ll take a long time. The good news is that it’s inevitable.

(Image from Beyond Good and Evil)





Gaming Data

17 11 2008

http://flickr.com/photos/isriya/1786868715/

I find most press releases very ignorable, but according to this one on MCV today, Everton Football Club have licensed the football manager database from Sports Interactive, apparently allowing them to search through 340,000 or so players.

This is a very intersting by-product of such a popular game, and strikes me as related to a couple of interesting finds from the past few weeks: Aftershock, a game about earthquake preparedness based on a USGS report, and the fact that Google search results for certain terms strongly parallel flu outbreaks.

How many data sources are there out there that would readily plug into entertaining and useful game mechanics? While it’s by no means ubiquitous yet, games driven by data are going to become more common.

(CC image by isyria)





Virtualisation, Dematerialisation

14 11 2008

http://www.flickr.com/photos/monkchips/2886907177/

James Governor has written a fascinating account of his visit to Microsoft’s Virtualisation team, who are attempting to simulate as much as the possibly can. It has potential to improve both the efficiency and the greenness of businesses, as James puts it:

Moving Atoms has a cost. I have recently started talking about Bit Miles as a Greenmonk narrative, defined as is the carbon cost associated with moving a good or creating a service that could instead have been delivered digitally. Bit Miles offer us a moral imperative to digitize: a simulation of the world is a beautiful opportunity to rethink and potentially dematerialize business processes.

Why not Supply Chain Simulator ™, which would pull together all of your plant information (pulled in from OSI, say), where your people are located (Peoplesoft), and how you move goods and services (SAP) around the world? An organisation could begin to run really deep “What If” scenarios about the energy costs of their businesses with simulations like these. But what would really make these models sing is the fact they’d be visual and immersive. Telling is rarely as effective as Showing. What would a low energy manufacturing business look like? With virtual technology we could maybe work it out.

Quite revolutionary stuff for Microsoft, and leaning heavily on their growing expertise in games. Another related post I read yesterday is “Who Stole My Volcano? Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Dematerialisation of Supervillain Architecture.“, which compares the opulent fortresses of Cold War Bond villains with the briefcases and phones that their modern counterparts work from. The utter difference in philosophy and power is obtuse at first, and utterly alien to the old guard, yet is accelerating into an unstoppable force.

I’ve been fascinated with the dematerialisation of physical objects ever since starrting to read Bruce Sterling, notably his book Shaping Things, which looks at the tendency of physical products to become information, ultimately existing as specific kinds of data that can be instantiated in the real world.

While AutoCAD is still the standard for architectural design, all the designers I know who use it regard it as outdated. The tools and skills that game developers use are up to the minute, and stand a good chance of being extremely relevant to the world in much larger ways, not only in terms of simulation, but also designing and producing physical chunks of it.

(CC image from MS Virtualisation studio, by RedMonk Red)