Archive for November, 2005

Game developers’ bill of rights

Sunday, November 27th, 2005

Eric Zimmerman has put together A Game Developers’ Bill of Rights. (It is loosely based on a similar document, A Bill of Rights for Comics Creators.)

A Bill of Rights for Game Developers

  1. The right to full ownership of what we fully create.
  2. The right to be billed as the game creator in marketing and on game packaging at least as prominently as any mention of the game publisher.
  3. The right for every individual involved in creating the project to be given accurate and prominent credit within the game.
  4. The right to move freely between publishers on new game projects.
  5. The right to a fair and equitable share of profits derived from a game.
  6. The right to full and accurate accounting of any and all income and disbursements relative to our work.
  7. The right to promote and the right of approval over any and all promotion of our games and ourselves.
  8. The right of approval over means for distribution, as well as for licensing, merchandizing, and other derivative versions of our games.
  9. The right to a publishing arrangement that reflects the iterative nature of game development; one that recognizes that changing a game as it is developed is part of creating a game.
  10. The right to a publishing arrangement that results in a process that conforms to accepted standards regarding work hours, compensation, and labor practices.
  11. The right to acquire publishing rights to a game if the publisher has stopped distributing the game.
  12. The right to employ legal representation in any and all business transactions.
  13. The right to final say in creative disputes regarding the game.

The full text, with comments on the articles and a short discussion is available from Gamasutra (linked above). It is certainly an interesting read.


Empathy and the emotional impact of games

Thursday, November 17th, 2005

In the survey Videogames: The Impact of Emotion, Bowen Research asked a bunch of gamers to rank the emotional impact on a number of art forms. The art forms were ranked from 1 to 6 and here’s the result:

  1. Movies
  2. Music
  3. Books
  4. Video/PC games
  5. Paintings/artwork
  6. Cars

So, movies, music and books all play our emotional strings more efficiently than video games. Surprised? I’m not… However, we should remember that video games are interactive narratives (whatever that means) rather than linear ones, like books and movies. It is also probably true that interaction (or rather agency) helps dragging you into a story and helps building immersion and that immersion is opening up shortcuts to emotions (sort of). I won’t get into the properties of interaction, immersion or agency but in short, I believe video games should be able to top that list. So why is that not the case?

Emotional impact of different game genres

Let’s first take a look at game genres. The people participating in Bowen’s were also asked to rank game genres? The top four genres that people considered “emotionally powerful” were:

  • 78% – Role playing games
  • 52% – First person shooters
  • 49% – Action
  • 48% – Adventure

That Role Playing Games (RPGs) are high on the list does not surprise me much. After all, the games that traditionally are most focused on story are RPGs. What does surprise me, however, is that there is such a gap to First Person Shooters (FPS) that come in second. When talking about the first person style of games, one usually stress the enormous immersive power of the first person perspective. That in itself I imagine would make up for a lot of emotional power. But, given that FPS-games are also traditional suckers when it comes to story (with a few exceptions, naturally) it is perhaps not so strange at all. If the immersive power of the FPS is as strong as many thinks, this means that there is a lot of untapped potential for storytelling in first person shooter games. But perhaps is isn’t the quality of the typical FPS story that is the problem here…

Let’s look further down the genre list and see if there are some answers…

An interesting thing about the Bowen survey is that the Adventure game genre, which is often very story heavy, come far behind the RPG, and even behind the FPS and Action genres. Adventure games are not very popular nowadays (although I have a feeling that a revival is coming) and that may account somewhat for the bad score. However, apart from that, adventure games are story heavy. They also often tell rather good story, so I sense that there is something other than plain storytelling that is the key to emotional power. Maybe there is something else than the plot of a movie that makes us weep…

Well, of course there is! It is called “Empathy”.

That RPG games scored high in the survey could probably be somewhat attributed to Final Fantasy VII which has a story moment which many refer to as the most emotionally engaging moment in gaming history (people who were playing games during the Dark Ages of Text would probably say that the death of Floyd in Planetfall was the first such moment). Nevertheless, I believe that RPGs generally are more successful than other games making players feel empathy for game characters.

In RPG games, the core of the gameplay is that you have one (or more) characters that you nurture and evolve. You level them up and supply them with better weapons, shields, clothes and equipment. You teach them skills and use those skills to advance through the game. In short, you invest quite a lot of time and effort creating your character(s). That the character(s) you create becomes dear and valuable to you is no real surprise, and it is much easier to feel empathy for someone dear and precious.

There are, of course, examples of games that have a different approach. In the game ICO, for example, we connect with the girl through different mechanics. In ICO, we need to constantly watch over her lest the ghosts catch her and the game is over. The girl also helps the player find his way and solve puzzles by giving subtle clues. And not the least, when you move around in the game you have to hold her hand to get her come along. Holding her hand is a familiar and warm gesture that we instantly recognize and feel good about. We connect with her through the hand of the little boy.

It should be said that not all players enjoy the design choices in ICO. For many, the girl is stereotypically and bluntly portrayed. She is helpless and meek and the game communicates sexist prejudice. I can definitely see the point. It is important to realize that if such things become issues for players, no mechanics in the world can save the day. All chances to communicate emotionally strong content instantly vanishes.

Emotional impact in First Person Shooters

An important property of empathy is that one cannot feel empathy for oneself. Empathy is the ability to imagine oneself in another person’s situation – to be able to feel with her. To do so naturally requires that there is another person present to feel empathy for. In many RPG games, we have a set of “puppet characters” that we play with and invest in. Gradually we become more and more attached to those characters.

The FPS genre is often described as the most immersive game genre and I believe that to be true. I also believe that a player who is immersed in a game is an “easier target” for emotionally powerful stuff. The problem is only that the “emotional stuff” we have seen so far in FPS games is quite primitive. Feelings of rage, anger, fear and frustration are all emotions that can be conveyed to the player with some ease, thanks to the extremely immersive nature of the FPS.

However, more complex emotions requiring that we feel empathy, like sorrow, is a different story. My argument is that in a FPS, the player is impersonating the player character (PC) and the ability to feel empathy towards the PC is thus impossible. For an FPS to be emotionally complex, a lot of effort therefore must go into creating non player characters that populate the game world. This must be characters that has the same value as player characters in RPGs. The player will need friends and enemies in the FPS game world that he/she can invest time and effort in, through game play mechanics and story narrative. Those characters must mean something to the player.

One might think that creating a first person RPG would be the ideal solution to the problem, but that is missing the point. Sure, there are aspects of RPGs that is transferrable to the first person perspective. The immersive nature of the first person perspective also adds a lot of realism and emotional impact. But if we truly wants the player to start sobbing when a character dies on-screen; the game world and its inhabitants – not the player character – needs much, much more attention.


IF Comp 2005 results are in

Wednesday, November 16th, 2005

The annual Interactive Fiction Competition results are here. The winner game is “Vespers” by Jason Devlin. All games, interpreters and full results can be downloaded from the competition homepage. The page also includes archives of previous competition games.

So, go ahead and download the top games and play them. There are always a few that’s definitely worth the effort. Most of these games can be played through in less than a couple of hours.


How technology matters

Tuesday, November 8th, 2005

I recently read an article on Gamesindustry that caught my attention. Nintendo has gone public with a statement about the next-gen console battle. Their position is that specifications does not matter and they even seem to go as far as to never officially release any specs for the Revolution console. Critics will probably ridicule them and say that Nintendo is doing this because they are getting behind in the performance-battle with Sony and Microsoft, and perhaps Nintendo are losing that battle. Or perhaps they never intended to fight it in the first place? I sincerely hope so. I also hope and believe that Nintendo is trying to point us into a new direction…

The whole video game industry is keen on uttering its favourite catch-phrase: “game play is king”. But frankly, I see a lot that seriously contradicts the idea that game play comes first. I won’t go as far, but in some cases I wonder if a more suiting phrase would be “tech is king”. Games are constantly praised for their visuals and technological advances and games with sub-par game play can get sky-high scores on technical achievements only.

The tech-show is going on on all levels of the industry, from the console manufacturers (Microsoft and Sony) screaming “performance, performance, performance” to developers and magazines and gamers… How come?

From a manufacturer view it is understandable. Developers are largely techno-freaks so it is probably wise to get their juices flowing. A typical developer would sacrifice his mother’s heart if he were allowed to code on the currently most amazing piece of hardware on the planet. Somehow I can understand that. And from the developers, the tech-focus flows out and through the industry all the way down to the consumers.

So, what’s the problem with all this? Well, none if tech is regarded the tool we use to make our game visions come true. But technology seems to sometimes become part of the vision, and that’s where I believe we slip off the tracks.

Let me take an example. In the game “Doom 3” (and in “Riddick”, for that matter) the characters and the world have a look that has been described as if everything was “wrapped in plastic”. I read a letter to a games magazine from a reader who wondered why that was the case.

The editor answered that it was due to “normal mapping” a texturing technique that allows high level of seemingly full-depth detail in the textures. The “plastic” look is just an inevitable side-effect of that technique, they wrote. I won’t go into the specifics of how normal mapping works. The thing is that the magazine was only partly right. A more correct answer would be:

“Those games look like that because they use a technique called ‘normal mapping’. And since the developers want to show that they use normal mapping, they crank up the specular component in the textures so that you should see the normal mapping effect more clearly. Hence the ‘plastic wrap’ look.”

Perhaps the magazine just simplified their answer, but that is not the point. The point is this: advanced tech is often premiered before aestethics. If you ask a hard-core render engine programmer wiz or a die-hard Doom player he (it is a he, right?) would probably disagree and claim that the visuals come first, but I suspect that visuals and tech are inseparable in that person’s view of the world. And in my world, you should only use the tech that adds to the emotional impact of the game. If you are forced to sacrifice artistic vision because of a new tech-feature, you should seriously consider sacrifice the tech.

So, I hope that Nintendo will help taking the focus away from tech and instead make us concentrate on what is actually happening inside our games. We developers need to constantly scrutinize ourselves and ask whether what we are doing adds to the emotional impact of the game, or if it’s just another tech show-off.


“Ladders” – a card game for two players

Friday, November 4th, 2005

A couple of years ago I was on Sicily with my former girlfriend. We spent some evenings indoors due to bad weather, drinking tea with rum and chatting. We also designed a card game which we played a lot. This is what we ended up with…

Preparations

The players take turns on who is the dealer. The current dealer gives each player 6 cards, the rest of the deck is put face-down on the table. Three cards are then put face-up beside the deck. These are the three “stacks”.

Objective

The objective of the game “Ladders” is to gather a full hand of six cards (or seven, if you’re in luck) containing one or more straight flushes, each containing at least 3 cards. These are examples of valid hands:

  • Spades 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9
  • Hearts J, Q, K and Clubs 9, 10, J
  • Diamonds 2, 3, 4, 5 and Clubs 5, 6, 7 (given that a “seven card” hand is built, see below)

Playing “Ladders”

The first player picks up a card (“the seventh card”), either from one of the three “stacks”, or the blind top card from the deck. The player then drops a card, either the one he/she picked up or one of the other six cards. The dropped card is always put face-up on top of one of the three stacks. The card can be put on a stack even if it’s empty.

Then the turn goes over to the other player who picks up a card from either one of the stacks or the deck. The card is either kept or dropped. If it’s kept, one of the other six cards on the hand is dropped.

If the deck runs out, cards are picked from the stacks.

When a player is holding a “seventh card” (the one the player picks up when it’s his/her turn) and the rest of the hand is consisting of nothing but valid straight flushes, the player can decide to end the round by laying his/her hand face up on the table. When a round is ended scores are awarded.

Scores

The seventh card value gives the score the round-ending player will receive. Jacks are 11, Queens 12, Kings 13 and Aces are high with a score of 14.

For example: The hand contains spades 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 of and a hearts 7. This gives 7 points for the hearts-card which is the seventh score-card.

If the player manages to create a 7 card full hand of straight flushes, he/she receives a score of 20.

For example: diamonds 4, 5, 6, 7 and hearts 9, 10, J.

The other player’s score is based on the stray cards that are not part of straight flush suits on the hand (here, two-card suits counts). Each card not part of a suit yields a score of -5.

For example: clubs 8, 9, J, clubs 2,hearts J and spades Q gives a score of -15.

After the scores have been awarded, the dealer shuffles the deck and a new round starts.

The game continues until a certain score is reached or until a certain number of rounds has been played.