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February 2010

Cities, Rewards & Multiplayer

AC2 Putting aside Nintendo for once, what's doing good unit sales on the power consoles? Using the Gold, Platinum, Diamond sales model: Modern Warfare 2 is at 16.5 million (Platinum), way ahead of Halo 3 at 10.83 million (also Platinum) benefiting greatly from being on both consoles. Grand Theft Auto IV is at 14 million (Platinum), its knock-off Saints Row 2 on about 2.7 million. Assassin's Creed is at 8.5 million (Gold), it's sequel has already sold 6.5 million (Gold). Gears of War 2 is at 5.6 million (Gold), while Fallout 3 scrapes 5 million (Gold), while its rip-off Borderlands still manages 2 million. (What have I missed at Gold sales and above?)

Except for the FPS slice of the market, which currently supports two major titles, specific styles of play currently support just one major franchise, with a secondary franchise able to do decent business but always significantly fewer unit sales than the leading title. This begs the question as to whether the publishing community has overlooked some possible market segment possibilities for the gamer hobbyists on the power consoles.

Looking at what's currently being offered to hobbyist players:

  • 2 Platinum games (Modern Warfare 2, Halo 3) offering set-pieces with multiplayer, firearm play and – in the case of the leading game – a solid reward structure (no cities).
  • 1 Platinum game (GTAIV) offering cities with vehicular and firearm play, including multiplayer (no detailed reward structure).
  • 2 Gold games (Assassin's Creed 1 and 2) offering cities with environmental, stealth and melee play (no firearms, no vehicles, no detailed reward structure).
  • 1 Gold game (Gears of War 2) offering set-pieces with multiplayer and firearm play (no cities, no detailed reward structure).
  • 1 Gold game (Fallout 3) offering a city with firearm play and detailed reward structure (no vehicles, no multiplayer).

Note that MMOs seem fairly weak as a commercial force on the power consoles – the PC owns this space, or rather, Activision-Blizzard owns the space because they own World of Warcraft, which is offering cities/wildernesses with melee and magic play, plus highly detailed reward structures, and operating in the Platinum range – the only fantasy game doing good numbers right now.

It seems that the minimum to compete at the top of this part of the market for videogames is to offer two out of three of the following:

  • Cities (or cities/wildernesses – it amounts to the same thing), an expansive open world for the player to explore.
  • Multiplayer (specifically online multiplayer), the opportunity to play with other players.
  • Reward Structures (i.e. RPG-like mechanics), detailed progress mechanics offering continued benefits for continued play.

Halo 3 is managing to get by with just one of these key features (multiplayer), but has yielded control of this slice of the market to Modern Warfare which does offer detailed reward structures – and shrewdly, it does so in its multiplayer, recognising that this is the core of its appeal. The Assassin's Creed franchise is doing rather well for games with neither multiplayer nor detailed reward structures – it benefits from being king of the castle in environmental play, since everyone else has focussed on guns instead of swords. It's only serious competitor is Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, which offers environmental play with multiplayer, but suffers from a certain schizophrenia: the choice of firearm play puts its multiplayer mode in competition with the biggest hitters, and the absence of a city (it has set-piece play instead) weakens the appeal of its single player game. Honestly, it will be lucky if it can make it to Gold – despite the quality of the product, it's not a great fit to the current marketplace, and seriously hobbled in commercial terms by being a PS3 exclusive.

The following opportunities could be taken advantage of by the (very few) companies with the assets to compete at the top of the hobbyist marketplace. I'm not including MMO concepts – I'm not convinced it's sensible to compete with World of Warcraft on the power consoles with their comparatively small installed base versus PC. In no particular order, here are some possible market opportunities:

  • Cities and reward structures with environmental and melee, magic and stealth play: basically a fantasy RPG with environmental play (clambering, platform).This is easy to attain – the templates for the play already exist – but would be competing directly against Assassin's Creed. A good license – Dungeons & Dragons or Middle Earth, for instance – could help bridge the gap. However, these licenses are being directed at the MMO space, and thus opportunities are being missed. What a shame Thieves' World has been left fallow... this would be perfect if it still had any pull. Honestly, a major publisher like EA could pick an old chestnut like this and elevate it to contender status with a decent marketing spend.
  • Cities, multiplayer and reward structures with environmental and melee, magic and stealth play: this is similar to the above, but geared towards a fantasy battle game with short battles i.e. multiplayer combat modelled on the successful FPS forms, but glossed as fantasy. This one is a challenge because the template for play doesn't yet exist (the closest form is the battlegrounds in World of Warcraft), and once again a good license is probably essential. Lord of the Rings Conquest gave this a go but failed to be authentic to the license, basically adapting Pandemic's Battleground concept to fantasy as a port. Developers have to be a lot smarter if they want to crack this space
  • Cities, multiplayer and reward structures with environmental and firearm play: this is what Brink is trying to offer, but it faces major challenges: environmental play essentially requires a third person view for wide appeal (look at what happened to Mirror's Edge), and firearm games are competing with the majority of big hitting franchises. It has a chance, but it could struggle to get a decent share of the market.
  • Cities, multiplayer and reward structures with environmental play (and possibly stealth play) only: glossed as modern day e.g. either a free running race game, a heist game or something similar. Not convinced the marketing department of any company has the balls to make a game downplaying firearms, which is a shame because there's a genuine opportunity for a game distinguishing itself from the norm. Competing against the already successful firearm games is a losing proposition; establishing a new slice of the market should be far more appealing.
  • Multiplayer and reward structures with environmental (and possibly stealth play) only: same as the above, but with set-pieces instead of expansive environments. Far cheaper to develop, this might be the sensible way to approach this opportunity – at least initially. What was learned in an initial development of this kind would make it clear whether or not an expansive city environment was needed.
  • Multiplayer and reward structures with vehicular play only: technical restraints make city-based racing games largely unsuitable for multiplayer online, but there has to be an opening in the marketplace for a racing game that can push the gamers' buttons. There are plenty of existing franchises that could have a crack at this space, although anyone moving this way is going up against Gran Turismo 5,and may face an uphill struggle. Design of the multiplayer modes is probably the key factor here.

Every one of these suggestions implies game concepts without firearms – it's my claim that the firearm space is currently overcompeted, while fantasy settings, environmental play etc. are currently undercompeted – there's a rare opportunity here for a developer with the resources to aim for the top, and a publisher who can see the market for videogames as more than a race for the next me-too game.

Any of these market opportunities sound like a game you might want to play? Any of them sound like a game in production? Let me know your thoughts in the comments.

The Life and Times of Dungeons & Dragons

D&Dexpert One of the most influential games of the last century was Dungeons & Dragons. This is not to suggest it has enjoyed enormous commercial success – it hasn't. Except, perhaps, in contrast to other role-playing game systems, which (other than White Wolf's horror-fetish World of Darkness and perhaps Steve Jackson Games' GURPS and Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu) have suffered either instant or lingering commercial failure. Estimates state some 20 million people have played D&D since its inception – impressive figures, especially for tabletop role-playing games, although for comparison bear in mind that Trivial Pursuit sold 20 million units in 1984 alone.

The influence of Dungeons & Dragons, or D&D, can be divided into two specific aspects: firstly, there is the mechanical influence, which has been felt most strongly in the videogames industry. The progress structures that were developed with this game are compelling and addictive, and become even more so when the rate of progress is increased, as it is when similar structures appear in videogames. In tabletop D&D, a player would be lucky to gain a level each week that they played. In a computer RPG, a player would be surprised not to gain levels in the space of a few hours, or even minutes near the beginning of the game. Not only computer RPGs but videogames in general owe a huge mechanical debt to D&D – even Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas contains reward structures descending from D&D amongst its mechanics.

The second influence – which is less commercially relevant but is just as culturally significant – is the confluence of narrative and play in what has been called participatory storytelling. Prior to D&D there were no mechanics for this kind of play – only children created ad hoc stories together; adults might write fiction, but they did not perform fiction with one another outside of improvisational theatre. The genius of Gary Gygax and Dave Areneson was to recognise that the central mechanics in wargames had a potential beyond that of representing conflict – the fundamental elements of these games were applicable to a more narrative form. Chainmail (by Gygax and Jeff Peren), the direct predecessor to D&D, was a 1971 wargame with rules for fantasy monsters and one-on-one “swashbuckling” action, inspired by the works of J.R.R Tolkien (Lord of the Rings) and Robert E. Howard (Conan) among others. It rapidly became apparent that this direction could lead to a new kind of a game – one in which the focus was individual heroes and their stories, not whole armies.

Thus was born the original Dungeons & Dragons boxed set, published by Tactical Studies Rules in 1974, back when the height of videogame sophistication was Pong. The original white box edition was essentially incomprehensible to anyone who was not already familiar with wargaming, but still proved hugely popular in comparison with the wargames available at the time. In this regard, it is important not to underestimate the role of Avalon Hill in the success of D&D: without the venerable wargame company paving the way for hobby gaming in general, it would have been essentially impossible for D&D to gain its initial foothold. Only because a niche market for esoteric and often complex boardgames had been established was it possible for role-playing games to spread so rapidly among university students, high schoolers, and other stalwarts of hobby gaming.

In 1977, TSR Hobbies (the next in the long chain of companies in the TSR lineage) began a two-pronged market strategy in respect of the then hugely popular (in hobby games terms!) D&D franchise. On the one hand, Basic Dungeons & Dragons retained the boxed set format (ideal for sale in toy stores) and was designed to be an introduction to the game for new players. On the other, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons was offered as a series of premium hardback rulebooks, intended for players of the basic game to “graduate” to, as they mastered the rules. The core of the advanced game came in three books published initially over three years: Players Handbook, Dungeon Masters Guide and Monster Manual, a schema which still exists to some extent today. TSR's product line for D&D was also supplemented by some third party companies such as Judges Guild, which published licensed AD&D content up until 1982.

The basis of the two-pronged strategy was sound: having a cheaper introductory version coupled with a more expensive advanced version made it easier for players to get into the game, and gave experienced players additional options. Unfortunately, the integration between the two versions was scant, and each was actuated by a wildly different design philosophy. Gary Gygax, in charge of AD&D, wanted rules for every conceivable situation (far more, in fact, than any player ever used). Eric Holmes, in charge of Basic D&D, preferred a more stripped down approach, with more room for improvisation. In this regard, it was almost as if the split echoed the two influences cited above: AD&D followed the mechanical line, while D&D followed the role-playing line, loosely speaking. There is a certain irony to Gygax leading the more complicated rule set: he had once quipped that TSR would be in trouble if the players ever realised that they didn't actually need any rules...

In 1979, a story broke that a university student in Michigan had disappeared in the school's steam tunnels while playing a live-action version of D&D. A 1982 TV-movie, Mazes and Monsters, starring a young Tom Hanks, was based loosely on the events, and wildly misrepresented the role-playing hobby in a manner reminiscent of the classic Reefer Madness. It was the beginning of a spate of negative publicity, which lead to a backlash against the game from conservative Christian groups who alleged the game promoted demon worship and suicide. This opinion had originating in Patricia Pulling, whose D&D-playing son killed himself in 1982, although there is no evidence the game was a factor in his death. Three years later, Pulling appeared on 60 Minutes opposite Gary Gygax, after which Gygax received death threats and had to hire a bodyguard. He left the company shortly afterwards owing to a dispute with the controlling shareholders, not long after creating the briefly successful Dungeons & Dragons cartoon for CBS, which lead its time slot for two years.

Between the negative publicity and the cartoon show, the media attention on D&D served to raise awareness of the game to new levels, and TSR's annual D&D sales shot up to $16 million in 1982, and $29 million by 1985. The New York Times speculated in January 1983 that Dungeons & Dragons could be “the great game of the 1980s”. During this time, Basic D&D diverged even further from AD&D under the guidance of new editor Tom Moldvay, who produced the 1981 edition, and the two rulesets were definitively considered to be entirely distinct games. AD&D was supplemented during this decade by many new hardback rulebooks, each of which sold a few hundred thousand units. Basic D&Dwas supplemented by a sequence of new boxed sets, each dealing with progressively higher level characters – Expert (levels 4-14), Companion (levels 15-25), Master (levels 26-36) and Immortals (level 36+), but the bulk of sales appear to have been for the Basic and Expert boxes. In 1989, the Basic boxed set apparently sold over a million units, annual sales that no other tabletop RPG has ever reached.

The very existence of D&D had been formative for the computer role-playing game genre, and was a clear inspiration for both Ultima and Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord, both launched in 1981. Both titles were key influences in the development of computer role-playing games, and Wizardry affected designers in both Japan and the US to an enormous degree. Despite this chain of lineage to D&D, TSR were slow to benefit from videogame revenue. Some largely unsuccessful Mattel and Intellivision titles in 1981 and 1982 were eventually followed in 1988 with the first of the popular “Gold Box” titles by SSI, beginning in 1988 with Pool of Radiance, and followed by half a dozen other titles in this line over the next four years, along with a slew of other licensed videogames over the next decade, several of which enjoyed modest success.

The 1990s were not so lucrative for TSR. David “Zeb” Cook's 1989 revision of AD&D into 2nd Edition removed a great deal of what had offended conservative Christians in the original game, including references to demons and devils, playable evil classes and races, and sexually suggestive art. This version drew less influence from the sword and sorcery fiction of Howard, Leiber and Moorcock, and represented itself as a blend of medieval history and mythology (although the Moorcock-inspired alignment system remained). Unfortunately, the entire tabletop role-playing game market was to suffer a near-fatal blow at the hands of a new contender in the hobby game space with the arrival in 1992 of Wizards of the Coast's Magic: The Gathering, a unique and addictive trading card game designed by Richard Garfield. M:TG (and to a lesser extent other collectible card games) sucked almost all the air out of the balloon for tabletop RPGs, and drove many companies bankrupt.

The final insult for TSR came in 1997, when the ailing company was purchased by Wizards of the Coast, the very company that had effectively driven it out of business. Ironically, two years later, Wizards of the Coast was itself purchased by toy giant Hasbro, who had little or no interest in tabletop role-playing, but were very interested in the massive revenues generated by both M:TG and the Pokémon Trading Card Game, which WotC had shrewdly licensed. Ironically, the Hasbro acquisition united Dungeons & Dragons with the company that had paved its way, Avalon Hill, the rights for which had been acquired by Hasbro after the collapse of the ailing wargaming company in 1998.

Under the guidance of Wizards of the Coast, Dungeons & Dragons was finally to enjoy more substantial success in the videogame marketplace, beginning with BioWare's Baldur's Gate series (1998-2001), the engine for which also drove the 1999 PlaneScape: Torment, a highly regarded but commercially unsuccessful title by Black Isle Studios, who had also acted as publisher for Baldur's Gate. However, just as D&D had been slow to take advantage of its influence in the cRPG space, it was too slow to move into the new massively multiplayer online RPG space. Early MUDs, the direct predecessors to MMORPGs, had been vastly influenced by D&D (especially the numerous LP and diku MUDs), and there is no reason the Dungeons & Dragons brand couldn't have moved to dominate the MMO space. Instead, World of Warcraft was to claim the crown – itself clearly a direct descendent of the ideas that originated in D&D.

In 2000, Wizards of the Coast released the third edition of AD&D, now called simply Dungeons & Dragons, thus marking the end of the two-pronged market strategy (and the commercial termination of Basic D&D). From now on, there would be only one product line for D&D at any given time. The third edition was marked by a daring decision to license the core rules, known as the d20 System, under the Open Game License (OGL), although both Dungeons & Dragons and d20 System remained trademarks of WotC. The motivation for this came from D&D's brand manager, Ryan Dancey, and was commercial in nature. It was a fact of the marketplace for tabletop RPGs that rulebooks sold far better than supporting materials such as adventure modules; the OGL spread the cost of producing support materials to other companies (latter day Judges Guilds, in effect), while theoretically driving sales of the core rulebooks. A later 3.5 edition was also released under the OGL, and for seven years D&D was the flagship product in the open gaming movement.

However, reading between the lines, it seems as if Hasbro corporate were less than pleased with what was entailed by open gaming, and when Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition was released in 2008 it came with a new, highly restrictive license known as the Game System License (GSL). This license has since been updated, but it still falls wildly short of the freedoms offered under OGL. The genius of the original OGL was that it allowed WotC to own the premier product in a theoretically expanded marketplace (on the principle that a smaller share of a bigger market would be worth more). However, judging from the revisions in the GSL, Hasbro's legal department had issues both with the freedoms being granted to potential competitors, and with their lack of control over the content that might be offered. To their credit, the GSL still allows relatively easy licensing of 4th edition books, certainly compared to the situation in other media – but it shuts down almost all other kinds of support, including software, magazines and websites, and provides no affordances for content rooted in 3rd edition.

One of the interesting things about the revised GSL is its effective admission of how little of the content in the D&D settings actually belongs to WotC/Hasbro, on account of the game even from the outset being cobbled together from dozens of different source materials and mythologies. Just thirteen monsters are listed in the revised GSL as being effectively D&D intellectual property, and of these only the Beholder and the Mind Flayer are particularly notable*. The creatures most associated with D&D such as Orcs, Elves, Dwarves etc. had already been excluded from legal protection in a landmark case between TSR and the estate of J.R.R. Tolkien, which established that one cannot legally own a race. Tolkien's estate did claim “Hobbit” as a trademark, however, and references to Hobbits and Ents were removed from D&D in 1977 as a result of the case.

The net result of the new GSL has been a split in the market between third party companies supporting 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons and companies unwilling to commit to the GSL (the scariest clause of which is the one which allows the terms of the agreement to be changed at any time without notice). Those who reject the GSL are either continuing to support the 3.5 edition of D&D under the original OGL, or spin-offs such as Paizo Publishing's Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, the appearance of which may have been a factor in souring Hasbro on the OGL. Since the whole point of the OGL as (presumably) sold to Hasbro was to drive sales of the core D&D rulebooks, the appearance of rival rulebooks may have been a deal breaker (which might also explain why the GSL expressly locks down any ability to reference the mechanics of the D&D core rulebooks).

Beyond the legal issues, 4th edition raised eyebrows because for the first time in its life the new D&D ruleset clearly showed the influence of MMOs – a change probably intended to help attract MMORPG players to the tabletop game. The core of D&D's cash flow lies with teenagers and university students, and the revised rules seem to assume that making the game more like an MMO will help appeal to an audience already familiar with online adventuring. This is most strikingly apparent in the spelling out in the 4th edition rulebooks of specific “roles” for combat, each of which overtly corresponds to the dungeon roles popularised in the World of Warcraft community (given here in brackets): defender (“tank”), striker (“DPS”), controller (“crowd control”) and leader (“healer”). Such roles make no sense in the context of participatory storytelling or the history of fantasy novels; they emerged from game balancing issues unique to the post-MUD online dungeon-bash games.

Thus one of the most original and innovative games ever to be published is now second fiddle to its electronic progeny. Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition seems to recognise that the success of World of Warcraft lies not in its ability to support role-play, for only a minority of players participate in the game world in this way, but in its slick, streamlined reward structures – inspired by the original D&D game, but tweaked to addictive excellence by the designers of computer role-playing games over the intervening decades (especially in Japan, where the genre is the most popular form of videogame). Nothing can take away the tremendous contribution of this game to the history of play, but it is still slightly saddening to see that now, even more than ever before, D&D as a commercial product is less about supporting the incredible niche hobby of participatory storytelling that it founded, and much more about wringing the spare change out of teenagers.

Are you, or were you, a Dungeons & Dragons player? I'm interested in hearing from players of the game who have opinions about the different rulesets, particularly players who still use 1st or 2nd edition AD&D rules (or D&D boxed set/cyclopedia rules), players refusing to leave 3.5 for 4e, players who have jumped ship for Pathfinder, or players who have switched to 4e and are happy with it. Thanks in advance for sharing your views!

* The full list of restricted monsters is Balhannoth, Beholder, Carrion Crawler, Displacer Beast, Gauth, Githyanki, Githzerai, Kuo-Toa, Mind Flayer, Illithid, Slaad, Umber Hulk, and Yuan-Ti.

IGF 2010 Finalists

Igflogo Last year, I was honoured to be invited to be a judge in the 2010 Independent Games Festival, and have been beavering away since the winter months began playing and reviewing games – not always as fun as it might sound. The finalists have now been posted, and I thought that while I deliberating on my votes, I might as well share my impressions of some of the games.

Aztaka_4 The first thing I have to report is that not one of the dozen or so games I reviewed during the first round made it into the final. By far the best of those that I saw was Citremis Games Aztaka, an Aztec-inspired action-RPG which seemed to me heavily influenced by Zelda, yet offering a side-on perspective with play combining platforming and spell-casting mechanics. Although I was doubtful this title would have what it would take to make it to the final round, I still thought this was a fine piece of work, and recommend it to fans of the genre.

Joedanger Among the titles in line for the Technical Excellence prize, two stand out. Firstly, Hello Games' Joe Danger, an updated version of the 8-bit classic Kickstart, which I doubt the developers have played. I wasn't able to play the game, alas, owing to a lack of keyboard support, but I watched the video and will look for it on the download services. Just watching it reminds me how much fun I had with Kickstart, and I'll bet this is a blast too. It's up for the Seamas McNally Grand Prize, so it clearly has a lot of support. Secondly, Playdead's Limbo was by far the best of the black-and-white games I saw this year in terms of the incredible atmosphere it generated. I was also greatly impressed with the fluidity of its interface – a very compact suite of controls gives amazing environmental access. Mainstream videogame projects could learn a lot from this.

Closure In respect of Closure, which has a really interesting design feature but was up for Technical and Audio awards only, I found myself annoyed by the designer's insistence on making the player figure out what its shtick is – the readme file being quite insistent that reading what is of interest in the game would ruin the experience. This being so, the game needed to be designed in a way that better supported that exploration without it resulting in endless and confusing fatal death while the player gets to grip with the central conceit... this did not endear me to the game, despite the fact the idea that motivates it (which in deference to the developers I will not spoil here) is rather interesting and different.

Strange Loop's Vessel also had its merits, with some very impressive fluid dynamic simulation, but fell down somewhat in the pragmatics of its design choices. It may well have appeal to adventure game fans, though. S2 Games' Heroes of Newerth – a rip off... erm... tribute to the Warcraft 3 mod Defence of the Ancients – is technically impressive but doomed to obscurity on account of its absurdly narrow audience. That takes care of the eclectic nominations for Technical Excellence.

Nothing really grabbed me in the audio category, I must confess, although I have been unable to get hold of a copy of Sidhe's Shatter, which is supposedly available on PSN – I'm not really willing to pay to judge a game, however. Not at all sure why Team Meat's rather distasteful Super Meat Boy! is up for best audio, although there is a solid – if a tad hardcore – 2D platformer buried under its silly gore. As a game which slaughters squirrels needlessly, this was never going to get much support from me, but those of you who do not find this sort of thing unpleasant ay well enjoy this game. Ratloop Asia's Rocketbirds: Revolution! was similarly an exceptionally solid run-and-gun game, but I didn't really find anything that interesting in its audio.

Limbo The prize for Excellence in Visual Art gave me great pause... specifically, I had to ask myself: what is Excellence in Visual Art? Am I judging the quality of the visuals, or am I judging the game as visual art, since these two judgements are very different to me. The aforementioned Limbo had incredible presentation of visuals, but as visual art I found it to be too casually brutal (and too Heart of Darkness-eque fatal). Rocketbirds looks great, but didn't exactly rock my world, and neither did the video of Klei Entertainment's Shank. Since this was 360-only and I didn't have the devkit to check it, I suspect (like PS3-only title PixelJunk Eden last year) it will suffer in the voting by not being available on PC. Owlboy I was more impressed by D-Pad Software's Owlboy, with it's wonderfully loving tribute to 16-bit sprites – it was a shame that this game locked up for me just a few minutes into play. That won't affect whether I vote for it, though, and I am tempted to support it in this category.

Trauma In terms of games as artistic ventures, however, there was only one game in the competition which I felt truly makes the grade, and that's Krystian Majewski's Trauma. At heart, this is simply a point-and-click adventure, but there are no lock-and-key object puzzles here. Majewski presents four dreams (narrated by a crash survivor to her doctor), each comprised of still photos which are embedded within one another, such that one can click on features in or at the edge of the current photo in order to move around and explore. This game, which is nominated for the Seamas McNally Grand Prize as well as Excellence in Visual Art and Excellence in Audio, is a definite star of the 2010 IGF and wish it all the best. It is lacking a clear introduction (currently in production, I believe), which it desperately needs, and inherits all the flaws of static error messages from earlier point-and-clicks but is otherwise an outstanding piece of work.

Cogs As a game designer myself, I spent the most time on the titles up for Excellence in Design. All five of these games are worth commenting upon. Lazy 8's delightful Cogs is a sliding puzzle at heart, and since I love these I enjoyed this. But it is the incredible contraptions at the heart of each puzzle that makes this so delightful to mess around with, and the charm is irresistible. Starguard Loren Schmidt's retro homage Star Guard offers a surprisingly sophisticated piece of design for such a simplistic-looking item, and I thoroughly enjoyed it – up until the point it threw away its interesting use of its checkpointing system. Unusually, this game allows the player to repeat sections with no loss of progress (such that, for instance, you can clear a minefield by just running yourself into the mines repeatedly!), but as the end approaches, alas, old school fail-repeat play takes over, and the game ceased to be as interesting to me. As a free download, though, fans of 2D scrolling platform shooters would be foolish not to check it out – and there's even a Mac version.

Miegakure Marc ten Bosch's ambitious Miegakure was inspired by Edwin A. Abbott's classic Flatland, and I did greatly enjoy messing around with its dimension shifting exploration mechanic. However, it was slightly let down by the fact that rather than a genuine projection of three dimensional spaces from a four dimensional tesseract (as it seemed to promise) it instead used a static projection mechanic to “weave” separate 3D spaces into composite spaces. Now it may be that anyone who has not studied general relativity will not understand why this is a disappointment to me, but in principle one can construct a 4-polytope in such a way that one can project unique 3 dimensional spaces from it. Miegakure doesn't actually do this, instead interleaving “strips” of worlds into composites. It was still good fun to explore the world, and I loved the idea behind the game, but I felt the designer had inadvertently bitten off more than he could chew. If it did what I felt it had promised to do, it might have been too difficult for anyone to understand, but since it did rather less than it promised, I felt it fell short on its potential. Perhaps this kind of concept presents a no-win situation for designers. It doesn't make the game itself any less interesting to explore, though.

Reckless Reckless is the game I have gone back to most often of all of the finalists – it's just plain fun to throw yourself off a building and plummet past concrete as you earn “kisses” and “hugs” in this wild base jumping game, and it lends itself to short play sessions. Unfortunately, Dejobaan Games have let a number of amateur-feeling excesses mar the experience, of which by far the most atrocious is the game's full title*. None of this takes away from the solid programming, art and design in this game – and the design in particular is tight and shrewdly considered. My commercial mind says this would have a bigger audience if you didn't die on impact, but my ethical mind says it's perhaps best that you do! At $9.95, this game is a bargain, and I hope the team convert it to console at some point.

Monaco Last, but by no means least, Andy Schatz's Monaco by Pocketwatch Games is a finalist for Grand Prize as well as for Excellence in Design, and a gem of a game. I have had several attempts at making a heist game myself, but alas none of them ever came to fruition. In Monaco, Schatz delivers the game of my dreams – a multiplayer co-operative heist game delivered in deliciously blocky top-down 2D. Everything from the design of the environments, the simplicity of the core mechanics, the balance of the classes, the retro-chic aesthetic – right down to the decision to resist becoming too hard at the end – seriously impressed me. I took to playing it “two player solo”, with a character on both my left and my right hand a la Kuri Kuri Mix, since it was a bit too hard with just a single character. I'm dying to try it in four player co-op! The inclusion of a level editor is merely another sparkle on this diamond of a game. There are a few niggling flaws, but the world needs more co-op top-down games, and Monaco is one of the best so far.

The rules of the judging this year permit me to support more than one title in each category, which means I don't have to agonise about picking a favourite in each case. I haven't finalised my votes yet – I'm still hoping I might be able to give Joe Danger a proper chance before I commit myself – but I can already attest that voting in the IGF this year has been considerably less depressing than voting in the Developer's Choice Awards (although go Flower and PixelJunk Shooter in your respective categories!) Indie developers, I salute you, one and all.

* The game title in full is AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! -- A Reckless Disregard for Gravity. The team suggests “Aaaaa!” for the short form, although I personally prefer “Reckless”.

Philosophy of Wii

Virtual-reality-labweb Does the market success of the Wii relative to the PS3 and Xbox 360 bear on major issues in philosophy of mind? Jon Cogburn and Mark Silcox assert that it does. In this piece, I argue against their claims – the success of the Wii did not reflect fundamental questions about how we perceive the world, but simply Nintendo's superior market strategy.

I'm taking a break from my giant philosophy tomes to read Cogburn and Silcox's Philosophy Through Video Games, which is a solid attempt at a first move in this direction – not to mention, any philosophy book which makes reference to Mark Kinney's character Mr. Tyzik (“I'm crushing your head!”) as part of a philosophical investigation is cast iron genius to my mind (even if they forget that his alternative catchphrase is not “you disappear” but “nobody's home!”).

However, in their essay “The Game Inside the Mind, the Mind Inside the Game (The Nintendo Wii Gaming Console)” they make some serious mistakes – not philosophical mistakes (I would discuss these on my other blog if they were), but simple games industry mistakes. Although this discussion references the philosophical terms 'phenomenalism' and 'enactivism' you will not need to know what these terms mean to understand the central argument.

Cogburn and Silcox are immediately in error when, on opening, they claim that “nobody saw Nintendo's promised new kinaesthetic interface... as relevant to improving the realism of modern video games.” This is not true. It was immediately clear to me that the Wii had serious advantages (both in certain kinds of 'realism', and in other more important respects), and I confidently predicted considerable market success from the start (although I was not the only industry analyst to do so). My Round Table entry in January 2007 summarises the appeal of these aspects of the Wii, which I term kinaesthetic mimicry. Realism in the context of this form of play means something very different to realism in other kinds of play; in fact, I question whether there can be a single principle of realism at all, even if we constrain our consideration just to videogames.

However, the authors are seriously in error when they claim that what is most commercially relevant about the kinaesthetic aspect of the Wii is greater realism; there is a fundamental mistake behind this assertion, which has already been thoroughly exposed by Edward Castronova, namely the assumption that the realism of depiction is the key factor in the appeal of videogames rather than (say) immersion. (Or, equivalently, to assume that greater realism necessarily implies greater immersion). In Synthetic Worlds, Castronova chastises post hoc the naiveté of virtual reality researchers in making the same mistake:

...the science program focused on sensory-input hardware, while the gamers focussed on mentally and emotionally engaging software. As you can imagine, a person can become “immersed” either way: either the sensory inputs are so good that you actually think the crafted environment you’re in is genuine, or, you become so involved mentally and emotionally in the synthetic world that you stop paying attention to the fact that it is only synthetic. It turns out that the way humans are made, the software-based approach seems to have had much more success.

To put Castronova's point succinctly: World of Warcraft is more popular than Virtual Reality World 3D Color Ninja, the latter title being one that most people haven't even heard of, let alone played.

The authors cite, as one of their key points of evidence, that “Wii gameplay seemed to many gamers to be much more realistic than that of its competitors”. Either this sentence is ill-formed, or their player studies contradict my own. Gamers, that is, the core market for videogames, do not in general find any aspect of the Wii more realistic than the “power consoles” (PS3 and 360) - and indeed, for such players the kinaesthetic part of the interface can be wildly frustrating. It gives them greater mimicry for less agency, and gamer hobbyists – those people who spend a substantial proportion of their free time playing videogames – are in general very much more interested in agency than they are in mimicry. What I believe Cogburn and Silcox should have claimed was that “Wii gameplay seems to many non-gamers to be much more realistic than any of its competitors”. The fact there is a disagreement between different market segments as to the question of realism is a major failing of their argument in favour of enactavism over phenomenalism: the Wii does not offer greater realism to all players, only to some players, and specifically those players who were not previously able to enjoy videogames.

One of the reasons I was so certain the Wii would be a massive success was that my company had already conducted detailed case studies of players and non-players of videogames (and games of other kinds, such as tabletop role-playing games) and had discovered an obvious but overlooked point. What had kept most people away from modern videogames wasn't a lack of realism, or a lack of interest in the games on offer (although there was a lack of interest in most of the games on offer in the case of almost all non-gamers), but a simple anxiety about the skills required. The majority of gamers, who have logged thousands of hours with a joypad, forget just how much skill (how much muscle memory – Cogburn and Silcox make good use of this concept) gamers have acquired on these inherently complicated devices. But a non-gamer sees in a PlayStation controller a device with a dozen controls – rendering them reluctant even to pick it up, much less use it, without some instruction and assistance.

The Wii's genius lies in three key areas. Firstly, in bringing kinaesthetic mimicry home from the arcades. The authors underestimate this aspect – the arcades since the 1990s had already been overrun by specialist hardware precisely because of the appeal of this form of mimicry to a wider audience for games. Secondly, it radically simplified the interface and presented it – not as a confusing device of almost aircraft cockpit complexity – but as something supremely familiar, a remote control. (This actually could be used to support enactivism, perhaps, but goes unmentioned). The fact that it doubles as a “light gun” adds value to both of these first points. Finally, the focus on Wii games is not on what appeals to the gamer hobbyists at all – successful Wii games for the most part are constructed to generate Lazzaro's People Play, i.e. amusement, social contagion etc. In short, the Wii appeals to a mass market audience because it is both accessible and meets their expectations of fun – not because it is “more realistic”.

When Sony executive Phil Harrison claimed in 2006 that the Wii and the PS3 represented fundamentally different markets he was absolutely correct. Sony and Microsoft are fighting out for the gamer hobbyists, the minority of players who spend the majority of money on games i.e. videogame addicts. Nintendo couldn't compete for this market, and they knew it, because competing for this market is about producing the best bells-and-whistles boy-toy, and that's extremely expensive. Sony and Microsoft lose money on every console they sell (as a loss leader; they hope to make up this cost in software license fees). Nintendo never sell hardware at a loss. This also helps ensure their hardware has a cost advantage in the shops.

Sony's mistake wasn't in misjudging how to pitch for greater realism, as Cogburn and Silcox effectively claim – for the gamer hobbyists improved processing power did equate to greater realism, at least of the kind that was relevant to them. The hobbyists are, for the most part, into kinds of gameplay which are physically detached and that involve principally the decision and pleasure centres of the brain; this kind of play is not made more realistic by physically intervening interfaces – it is more often blocked by it. The greater processing power of the Xbox 360 and PS3 afforded more polygons and better draw distances – aesthetic improvements only gamer hobbyists could appreciate, since for anyone in the mass market the Xbox and the Xbox 360 produce more or less the same graphical quality. This is why the Wii's “inferior” graphics potential doesn't hurt it one wit with its primary audience.

What Sony didn't fully appreciate for some reason was how much larger the mass market audience for games is compared to the hobbyist market. Personally, I believe they (and Microsoft, whose thinking was no different) did not necessarily make a strategic mistake in this regard. If Sony and Microsoft had gone in the same direction as Nintendo at the same time, their situation would have been worse, not better, as neither company has a development team (or, for that matter, a development process or marketing strategy) capable of reliably targeting the play needs and desires of mass market gamers. Of the major platform licensors, only Nintendo has these capabilities at this time. If the PS3 had been a souped-up Wii, the Wii would still have outsold it.

Where Sony did make a gigantic mistake was in claiming that the Wii was “bringing people into” their market. At the height of the PS2's success, a large part of what is now the Wii's market was Sony's market. At the height of the Wii's success (roughly now) whatever part of the Wii's market was not previously part of Sony's audience remains out of reach to Sony. The Wii has stolen the mass market from Sony who previously had control of it, and built upon the existing foundations, expanded this audience yet further. This could only be good news for Sony if they can “steal it back”, and this is not impossible, but neither is it currently very likely.

Cogburn and Silcox conclude, following their nicely constructed philosophical argument, that “by devising game controllers that better mapped the relevant sensorimotor skills, the Wii's designers launched us into the next phase of the gradual but (so gamers hope) inevitable transition towards truly realistic and immersive video games”. If this claim were true, then Project Natal and Sony's Motion Control project will improve their relevant console's market performance. But it won't. Or at least, it won't to any significant degree. Remember World of Warcraft... greater immersion is not a function of interface, except in so much as the complexity of the old interface was a barrier to mass market players. A strategic player already hit the height of immersion with Civilisation... a tactical player already hit the height of immersion with, well, I suppose FPS games are continuing to refine what they offer, so there might yet be somewhere to go in this regard, but nevertheless Goldeneye (1997) and Modern Warfare 2 (2009) are not so far apart.

There will be much talk about Natal and Sony's motion control system, and there probably will be some interesting games that come out of it. But the mass market isn't going to buy a 360 or PS3 to get at these devices – they already have a Wii. And gamers aren't going to be enormously interested in these new systems unless they match or exceed the degree of agency they can attain with a standard controller. Nothing I've seen so far would allow us to conclude this. The kind of play that gamer hobbyists generally enjoy is on the one hand highly visceral (exciting, spontaneous) and on the other highly cerebral (strategic, thoughtful), and players who enjoy play of this nature are not suffering from a barrier to enjoyment as the mass market was in the case of the Wii. There isn't a design problem to solve here.

Be honest, gamer hobbyists, what are you more looking forward to: is it Project Natal, or Bioshock 2, Halo: Reach and Mass Effect 2? Is it Sony's Motion Controller, or is it The Last Guardian, Gran Turismo 4 and Heavy Rain? Even if none of those games interest you, I'll bet what excites you is a forthcoming game, not Sony and Microsoft's novelty interfaces. For mass market players, the Wii already offers more or less what they want. For gamer hobbyists, the game interfaces have been good enough for quite a while now. Anything more is just icing on the cake.

Interested in the philosophy I gloss over here? Check out Cogburn and Silcox' book Philosophy Through Video Games, published by Routledge, which includes fascinating discussions of the relationships between the ability to compute and objectivity, artificial intelligence and language, and more besides.