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June 2011

Toy-view and Doll-view in Videogames

BatmanArkhamAsylumvideogameimage(1)Some children prefer to play with dolls and others with toys they hold in their hands. Does this choice in childhood play carry on into preferences for first and third person perspective in videogames? Did players preferring third person perspective in games play with dolls and action figures when they were children?

First person perspective places something in your virtual hands: this is what I shall call toy-view, since whatever you see in your hands is the equivalent to a child's toy e.g. a gun for most shooters. (Sometimes, your virtual hands are the toy!) Alternatively, third person perspective allows you to look at what the doll your avatar is animating is up to, offering a more imaginative doll-view, as in the example of Batman: Arkham Asylum (Rocksteady, 2009), depicted above. There is at least one other view available, which we could call tabletop-view or table-view, found in the case of game menus, board-games, puzzle games and the like. It seems whatever game you’re playing, the fictional world is either built around a toy, a doll or a table, which is unsurprising since these are what we play with as children.

The first person shooter (or gun game) puts the toy into the hands of the avatar, and there is no doll beyond the hands. Moved into third person, the player is given a doll to look at, but the fundamentals of the play remain the same as with the toy. The only difference between the two is the access to the make-believe: via a toy (held in fictional hands) or via a doll. I propose to call these views toy-view and doll-view in reference to what the perspective focusses upon. Thus, first person is always toy-view, and third person is always doll-view, and shooters that are focussed on guns can just be gun games with no question about which perspective was chosen. (The idea that the “first person” in ‘first person shooter’ has any relevance beyond the historical at this point is almost farcical).

Since the renderers for videogames now routinely handle both views, it has ceased to be a technical issue to support both (provided the game design co-operates with this goal). It’s more work to provide a doll for the player’s avatar to animate, but these days this consideration is negligible for most blockbuster game projects, given the astronomical resources required to make the gigantic toy cities, islands, space stations and the like at the heart of the major videogame titles. Supplying both toy- and doll-view has become simple, allowing players to choose which perspective they prefer to play from.

Did players preferring first or third person perspective in virtual worlds also prefer playing with toys and figures respectively when they were younger? Whatever the answer, there are clear preferences between players as to which way to view a particular videogame. Some insist on playing a car game in third person (where the model car serves as a mechanical “doll”), while others prefer the immediacy of first person, and similar preferences exist for gun games and the like. However, many potential players couldn’t handle either perspective in the way it was being presented to them in videogames, largely because the controls were too complex. Table-view was much more accessible, as “casual games” like Bejewelled (PopCap, 2001) attests.

The barrier created by complexity of interface blocked mass market interest in videogames substantially for some time, and allowed the Wii and DS to carve out new markets for more accessible interfaces. In the case of the Wii, Nintendo were able to offer a toy in actual hands, rather than just virtual. The popularity of this move speaks for itself at this point, but of course what proportion of this success can be attributed to the kinaesthetic mimicry of using the Wii-remote as a toy is difficult to ascertain. The familiar design of the controller, in terms of other multimedia devices already in the home, certainly played a key role in establishing mass appeal. Nonetheless, a toy in the hand is worth two on the screen for the mass market players.

It’s small wonder that gamer hobbyists aren’t as enthusiastic about the Wii as the mass market players. Toys in the hand aren’t anywhere near as important as fidelity of control to gamers. As more imaginative players, the gamers generally want the deeper, more immersive make-believe experience that comes from interacting with animated dolls. They might still prefer to play in toy-view, but even from this perspective they want the dolls they are hunting down to have entertaining animations. Dolls are very important to gamers, and perhaps this also explains why stories in games are so much more important to gamers than they are to mass market players, since dolls and stories inevitably go together.

Sony and Microsoft, having been heavily focussed on their private fight over the lucrative gamer hobbyist cashflow, have neglected the importance of these issues until quite recently and took a deserved spanking from Nintendo. Now, the toys are back in town, with Sony’s Move being a blatant and predictable response to Nintendo’s “toy for all seasons”. Microsoft’s “controller-free” interface concept is particular interesting in this respect as it seems to fall between the desirable cracks: not high enough fidelity of control to appeal to hobbyists, and nothing to serve as a toy for the mass market. The “I’m on TV'” worked for a while with Sony’s EyeToy, but then became old hat quite rapidly. It remains to be seen if Kinect falls prey of the same problem. I won’t be remotely surprised if we see some Kinect games shipping with a peripheral – especially a gun peripheral – which would comprehensively reveal the concept of controller-free play as a gimmick.

The refusal to think about videogames in terms of play – as continuous, that is, with childhood play – is profoundly unhelpful. The resistance comes from not wanting to devalue the richly creative medium of games as being “just toys”. But almost all contemporary media is continuous with childhood play: films and television offer dolls as much as any videogame does, and dolls of such incredible detail and emotional response, why, you’d think they were real people! Toy-view and doll-view may just be terms synonymous with first and third person perspective, but they also reveal the different psychology behind the different views – they show what the player is playing with, what their avatar animates. Does it control a toy gun, a toy steering wheel, a toy sword? Or does it control a soldier doll, a model car or a knight doll? Toys or dolls. The player chooses what they want to play with – and that is the heart of what it means to play a game.

Interested in the relationship between imagination and games? The book Imaginary Games might be for you.

International Hobo on Tour – July 2011

I am off “on tour” this July, with stops in three British cities and one in the States. Here’s my itinerary:

  • 4 July: Immersion 11 Forum, London
    On the Game Changers panel
  • 7 July: Film Philosophy Conference, Liverpool
    Presenting “Fictional Worlds in Films and Games”
  • 8-10 July: Videogame Cultures III, Oxford
    Presenting “Prop Theory for Game Aesthetics”, 2 pm Friday
  • 12-14 July: Visions of Humanity in Cyberculture, Cyberspace and Science Fiction VI, Oxford
    Presenting “Orthodox Science Fiction and Fictional Worlds, 4 pm Wednesday.
  • 18-22 July: IGDA Summit/Casual Connect, Seattle
    “Imagination and Game Design: A Philosophical Approach”, 10 am Tuesday

Happy trails!

E3 Thought Translator

Nintendo gathered a lot of buzz for their new Wii U console, with its tablet-esque controller, while Sony had its new portable, the PS Vita and Microsoft continued to push Kinect. You’ve heard what they were saying, but what were they thinking…

PSVita Sony said: “Sorry about the security breach (our bad!), but look at our funky new super-high performance replacement for the PSP, the PlayStation Vita! Not only is it a flashy handheld console, ideally suited to take on our rivals, but it will sync with the cloud so you can transfer your games between the Vita and your PS3. Neat, huh?”

While Sony is thinking: “Damn, Nintendo are moving first on the next generation of consoles? We haven’t even decided which direction to jump on our PS4 yet, and  it doesn’t seem likely our new handheld is going to beat out the DS... Nintendo only need to sell another 5 million to pass our PS2 record and become the biggest selling console of all time. And the privacy scandal… just what we needed right now. Frankly, Microsoft having slightly outsold us in the home console market scarcely matters at the moment next to the rather worrying question of how we’re going to regain ground in the hardware market. Anyone got any ideas? Can we copy Nintendo's concept but do it better...?”

Kinect Microsoft said:Kinect! Kinect! It’s fun! It’s new(ish!) It’s doing great, having sold five times as many units as the PlayStation EyeToy! Kinect! Kinect! Oh, and don’t forget, we have Halo 4 with a new developer, but don’t get too excited because we’re not really going to show you anything yet. Don’t forget Kinect! Kinect!”

While Microsoft is thinking: “What the hell do we do now? Can’t risk launching a new console without a really solid direction, and unless the gamers start taking a real interest in Kinect this new controller concept will only take us so far. We’ll look really stupid launching a motion controller at this point – we could rip off Nintendo’s new idea, but surely Sony plans to do that already. At least Sony didn’t announce a home console this year, that buys us some time… it’s not like we need to worry about Vita. We need a really solid idea by next year – any suggestions?”

WiiU Nintendo said:The Wii U – it’s what everyone wants but just doesn’t know it yet! It’s a motion controller… it’s a conventional controller… it’s an ipad… it’s a camera and a microphone all in one! How much would you pay for a console controller like this? No wait, don’t answer yet, because you can’t buy them separately anyway. What you can do is play on your home console as if it was a handheld – neat, eh? So now that our newly upgraded Wii console can finally display graphics in high definition, you won’t have to see them because you’ll be using the 6.2 inch screen on the Wii U instead! Aren’t we awesome!”

While Nintendo is thinking: “Did they swallow it, do you think? We desperately need something to regain the momentum we had with the Wii, and our best bet is stealing an idea from Apple. Maybe we can win the teen gamers over with the possibility of being able to keep playing on the console even after their parents have turfed them off the big screen TV. At least we're still in the driving seat for hardware, and it doesn't look as if our rivals will come up with anything better than our iipad... Fingers crossed, anyway. By the way, has anyone seen the stock prices…?”

Disclaimer: ihobo disavows any claims to the accuracy of its thought translation software.

Seeking New Mail Client

Can anyone recommend a mail client for use under Windows XP?

I still use the aging Outlook Express as my mail client, largely because I’ve been unable to find anything better. I did try Thunderbird the other year, but found it had no significant advantages over OE, and a lot of clunky new problems.

The main factor pushing for change is that when I’m travelling, transferring mail from my desktop to my laptop is very difficult – even with a tool expressly designed for the job. In particular, mail rules (which OE stores in the registry) do not transfer well. Webmail is impractical for the volume and diversity of email I handle (e.g. sometimes I get 5,000+ survey data emails in a week), so it will need to be a POP3 client.

Here’s my “wish list” for a new mail client:

  • Lightweight code – quick to start, little to go wrong.
  • Easy filtering – ideally, I’d like to drag an email into a folder and have the client learn that I want emails from that contact to go into that folder. Failing that, to be able to easily compile lists of contacts that filter into a particular folder. But most importantly, all this information has to export easily for when I transfer to my laptop.
  • Effortless export – as I say, I need to switch from desktop to laptop without losing any data.
  • Secure – I have to protect non-disclosure agreements with commercial clients, so I need software I can trust.
  • No fluff – I want a mail client to sort and read mail; I’m not looking for software that tries to take over my desk diary’s job.

Any suggestions?

Update: following a demonstration of Gmail by Peter, I'm now much more confident that this is a sensible step for me to take. I'm going to experiment with Gmail while I'm on the road in July and if it works out I'll ditch Outlook Express when I return. Thanks to everyone for their assistance!

Digital Dominance: Goals

Last week we looked at the most popular depictive prop in videogames    the gun. This week, in the second and final part, it's the turn of the most popular verbal prop the goal.

kirby-air-ride-checklist-filled Why are goals so inherent to games of all kinds, especially videogames? It is not that games require goals - a tabletop role-playing game can escape them entirely. But there is something about goals that is essential to what we usually mean by “gameplay”.

There is still a widespread tendency to think of winning and losing as the quintessential hallmark of a game. Yet many games have no victory condition and yet still feel game-like. Consider Deus Ex Machina (Mel Croucher, 1984) or SimCity (Maxis, 1989). The temptation to always imply a goal may be misleading: all action implies outcomes, after all, and this observation extends far beyond games. We can't take the necessary link between action and result as saying anything important about games.

In this piece, the focus is not goals in the abstract sense but the very specific details that emerge from representing functional objectives in words (or numbers). Missions, quests and achievements are all examples of goals in this sense. Like guns, goals dominate the landscape of play, now more than ever before in the history of games.


Consequences of Goals

What happens when a game presents a stated goal to the player? One possibility is that the player does as the game asks; in a linearly structured game the player must comply or else stop playing (a reason this structure has severe commercial limits). Another possibility is that the player attempts to subvert the stated goal, to find a way to attain it that circumvents the expected course of action. Either way, if the player completes the goal they experience a sense of satisfaction or triumph. If they subvert the goal, they may also enjoy a perverse delight in having done so.

What if the goal is not stated? If what is expected of the player can be intuitively grasped, the ‘goal’ is merely help text – “eat all the dots” in Pac-Man, for instance. If its implementation is obscure, a puzzle results. Solving a puzzle is more rewarding than completing a goal, because struggle always enhances reward if (and it's a big if) the player perseveres. But tough puzzles are a minority interest in games precisely because of that ‘if’. Goals, on the other hand, are fast becoming ubiquitous. The importance of the ‘stated’ aspect of a goal, therefore, is that it reduces the risk of the goal becoming a puzzle.

Once goals are stated, an inevitable consequence is structure. A game with implicit or unstated goals can be freeform and unstructured, but most players facing such a situation won't know what to do with their freedom. Conversely, stated goals provide inevitable organisation. Linear chains of goals, parallel threads of tasks, long lists of possible activities... a game with goals has a structure, and structure is the game designer's secret weapon.

To keep a player interested in a game, it must present possibilities. Sometimes, the possibility to win is enough. Increasingly, however, the drive to play is sustained by structured goals – a reward structure (or, to make the debt to B.F. Skinner explicit, a reward schedule) gives the player multiple reasons to keep playing. It began with Dungeons & Dragons (TSR, 1974) and the class and level system, but now everything from Facebook to Xbox Live thrives on structured sets of interlocking rewards. Goals are inherently rewards, because to complete a goal is to feel satisfied; anything else you can offer for completing a goal (experience points, trophies, loot) is pure gravy.

Circumstances for Goals

As already mentioned, D&D set the scene for the dominance of goals. Never mind its inventive participatory storytelling, the parallel reward structures of experience for levels and treasure for equipment created the basis of all modern game goals. There are other stories to be told, of course – the rise of FarmVille (Zynga, 2009), for instance, is incomprehensible without recognising the contribution of Harvest Moon (Natsume, 1997 onwards) and Animal Crossing (Nintendo, 2003 onwards). But nothing in modern games makes sense except in the light of the contribution of D&D.

However, the reward structures from D&D were for a long time constrained to the digital descendants of tabletop RPGs, and the goals were little more than target numbers of a resource to collect (i.e. XP). These games also used quests as a parallel goal mechanic, which conditioned the immediate activities of the player, but the form was laboriously narrative, and did not see much use outside of cRPGs. That said, mission goals were becoming widely used by the late 1990s, and were often expanded beyond the basics. GoldenEye 007 (Rare, 1997) had a secondary goal mechanism whereby each mission had a target completion time, which would unlock a “cheat” if met. These targets were stated goals, although the exact rewards were secrets.

Kirby Air Ride (HAL Laboratory, 2003)  offered a significant development to the hidden goal system by offering “checklists” in a grid form, whereby goals are secret unless the player has completed a goal in a neighbouring square (see picture, above). Since some of the goals are inevitable – win 3 races, for instance – the player is given a means to explore the checklist space, and their play is focussed by an extensive array of goals, giving reasons to race different vehicles and so forth. The checklist system was an innovative way of structuring play, but it gained little attention at the time.

In a rare case of Microsoft being inventive, 2005 saw the introduction of the Gamerscore achievements system. This offered many of the advantages of the checklist approach, and by making most goals explicit it offered another level of play to all Xbox games. What’s more, by making this a platform standard it ensured all developers could gain the advantages of an explicit goal structure (whether they wanted to or not!). However, by scoring Achievements collectively (the ‘score’ in Gamerscore) Microsoft also collected these goals into a composite reward schedule. Depending on one’s perspective, this was either sheer genius or thoroughly pernicious – personally, I believe it to be a little of both. Goals under this system become habit-forming across the entire platform, and truly dominate play.

This is not the end of the story, however, since other companies soon came to recognise the merits of hooking players long-term with explicit goal structures. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (Infinity Ward, 2007) upped the stakes in this contest. They ceded the single player mode to Microsoft on the 360 (putting all the Gamerscore achievements into this mode) but hooked players into their own reward structure in multiplayer, using an experience system in the grand D&D tradition coupled with badges linked to various goals and rewards, comprehensively holding player attention for hundreds of hours. The result was a highly compelling goal framework that is rapidly establishing itself as industry standard.

Nor are goals exclusive to the gamer hobbyists, as Facebook demonstrates – although in this context a little social competition is used as a driving force between commoditised 'friends'. Goals have become as ubiquitous as guns, if not more so, and play – in the sense of free and spontaneous expression – has been quashed by the addictive qualities of reward structures.



Modern Warfare is a poster child for the current domination of play by guns and goals – it has both in impressively large numbers, and equally substantial sales figures as evidence of the commercial benefits of going this route. But with games like this and the even more goal-saturated World of Warcraft (Blizzard, 2004 onwards) demanding hundreds of hours of attention from their audience, the blockbuster market begins to be closed to new faces.

The creativity of the 80’s is long gone, replaced by battles over the control of the most lucrative niches. As smaller numbers of games are able to compete for the attention of gamers at the upper end of the market, the medium of videogames as a whole arguably suffers. Creativity lacks a home – blockbusters can't stray far from the dominant forces, and mass market games must conform to the lowest common denominator in order to court appeal, while often having budgets too low to attain production values amenable to wide appeal.

The domination of videogames by guns and goals is likely to persist unless viable, creatively-driven, art-game movements can emerge that either subvert or discard both explicit achievements as the structure of play and weaponry as the focus of play. If this is not possible, games-as-art will flounder against the possibility of holding sufficient interest against the commercial mainstream, and will fail to earn attention, funding or respect. With the mainstream of videogames now quite clearly defined, the open question is whether the artistic potential of the medium will be explored, or left fallow.

Interested in the relationship between imagination and games? The book Imaginary Games might be for you.

Digital Dominance: Guns

In the first of two pieces following up the Toy Chest & Play Set discussion, I look at the dominant depictive prop in videogames: the gun.

m4 Why are there so many videogames based around guns? It is not because play depends upon guns – board games have far fewer guns than, say, bank notes. No, the gun is dominant in videogames because we have chosen it, we have marked out the firearm as the toy we most want to play with.

There are many plausible scenarios for why this should be, but it would be safer to talk of the factors behind this situation. That the firearm has such a central role in action entertainment in other media – particularly TV and film – is certainly part of the story. Stories involving weaponry are exciting, and danger can be intoxicating. But it seems highly unlikely that we would be enjoying action movies with firefights if the gun were not already embedded in the culture. Real firearms put tremendous, terrible power into the hands of just about anyone. The gun thus has an aura of power to it, one that distracts from the direct dangers of having firearms in a culture, and instead affords a certain mystique. Thanks to news services, armed military operations are now an every-day part of our lives, affording these deadly tools a respectful edge: soldiers use guns to “defend freedom”. (Conversely, a weapon such as the garrotte, which is used only in skullduggery, lacks this kind of justifying mythology.)

The presence of a gun in a digital game has severe implications on the resulting play, as I have discussed briefly in A Toy Chest for Game Design. Ordinarily we would characterise the genre of a game with guns as either shooter or action, based on their similarity to other games that fit inside that term. A fresh way of thinking about genre would be to consider it in terms of the central prop – in which case gun game would be a genre term that would include all first person and third person shooters, most city-based games (gun/car games, perhaps) and much more beside. The gun has effects on games that are representational (i.e. appearance, Juul’s “fiction”) and functional (i.e. game mechanics, Juul’s “rules”). Exploring the consequences of having guns in a game reveals the nature of the gun as a prop, and suggests what is central to gun games.


Consequences of Guns

If we know that a game has a gun as one of its props, we can conclude a great deal about the game – perhaps not with absolute certainty, but with sufficient confidence that any game that bucked the trend would stand out for having chosen to be different. With a gun as a prop, we can expect the following other things to be part of the play:

  • Violence (implied by the gun)
  • Death (implied by the violence and the gun)
  • Repetition (implied by death)
  • Positional play, such as running for cover (implied by the gun)

Games do not need to have any of these things, but a game with guns is constrained by the inclusion of the gun. This has advantages – it focuses and clarifies what the player is supposed to do. Give the player a gun, they know they’re going to be shooting and killing things. Give the player a spoon, it’s harder to know what to expect. (A game with a spoon could still involve violence and death, but a game with a gun will involve violence and death).

What’s more, if the gun is the central prop of the game (i.e. the element around which all else revolves), there are further consequences, many of which are not as clean cut as those described above. Most of these consequences follow from the fact that the game will be offering a choice of firearms, and thus different guns will generally:

  • Have different capabilities
  • Imply different embedded play activities (e.g. sniping versus silenced stealth versus point-blank skirmishes etc.)
  • Imply different rates of movement when equipped.

This last one is interesting: at first glance, it may appear to be a representational consequence based on mimicking the real world. Except in the real world, it is what we are carrying that determines how fast we move, not what we are holding. In a 3D shooter where guns affect speed, however, holding a machine gun means running slowly, while holding a knife means running quickly – even if the avatar in question is still carrying the machine gun. This is a strange situation, but we accept it in FPS games because it feels right for their play. This is an example of functional considerations overruling representational considerations.

Conversely, reloading animations are an example of representational considerations dictating functional considerations. If representation of real weapons wasn’t a factor, game guns would fire constantly – as is the case in laser tag games, for instance, where no requirement for a reload exists. The choice to represent real guns – and there is always a draw for reality in representation, despite the imaginative bias of most gamer hobbyists – implies the reload. Once the reload animation is present, it generates play, as constraint tends to do, but its inclusion flows primarily from the representation.

What is revealed here is the interchange between representation (graphics and animation) and function (gameplay): one does not wholly dictate the other. Rather, the circumstances in effect have inherent representational elements, and consequent functional elements, from which decisions at the functional level feedback down to the representation. This “art-play" loop exerts tremendous influence on the development of games. Thinking about game design wholly in terms of function – in terms of gameplay alone – will be misleading. In fact, many successful videogames have prospered because they have worked on the representational consequences of the current functional trends and vice versa.


Circumstances for Guns

I have said that guns are primarily representational props, but that functional consequences flow from them (i.e. the graphics imply the gameplay). However, the possibilities for games with guns flow from the circumstances in which they appear – and the two most significant factors in this regard are projection and temporality (i.e. real time versus turn-based).

In fact, the gun invites the decision to prefer real time, and guns are not a particularly common prop in turn-based games. Once turn-based is the temporal paradigm, it makes more sense to be playing with toy soldiers and tanks than guns, or for that matter fantasy armies and dragons. Guns aren’t restricted to real time play, but they imply real time play in some weak sense that does not rise to the level of the consequences outlined above. Why should this be?

One answer emerges from considering projection. The oldest digital games use a second person, 2D projection (sprites etc.) because the technology was best suited to this viewpoint. This led to a fork based on temporality: in real time, the 2D projection led inevitably to the shooter format, with many target sprites to be shot down, and bullets to avoid. The modern descendents of this lineage, the vert shooters, ended up focussing on the bullet-dodging to the exclusion of all other play, but whether this was inevitable or not is a matter of debate. The other path in this fork, turn-based, lead to strategy games at a squad or army level. Whereas the shooters could not exist without guns, the strategy game didn’t actually gain any specific benefit from being wed to guns, and indeed gained more from abstracting out further – to wider scale military engagements – especially as computing power escalated.

However, with the rise of 3D in games, typified by Doom (id Software, 1993) – which not coincidentally had the gun as its central prop – the tension in temporality manifested as a clear bias towards real time. 3D doesn’t make a great deal of sense for a turn-based game, since the essence of non-real time play is in making considered decisions, and this rests on easy access to a lot of circumstantial information. Third person 2D is ideal for this. Conversely, 3D projections are ideal for delivering the player immediate information, and this immediacy works most effectively with real time play.

The use of a first person projection for these 3D shooters arose from technical limitations – it is considerably easier to render a convincing representation of a person running around shooting people when all you have to represent is the gun and their disembodied hands. Of course, with the technical “arms race” in the shooter market now, this has ceased to be an issue, and third person games compete with first person games freely. This has only been possible, however, because the first person perspective presented a functional problem to be solved, and once it was solved, third person games could piggy back on the solution.

The problem in question was movement in full 3D. Prior to 3D, only one joystick or set of arrow keys was usually needed. After 3D – even as far back as Battlezone (Atari, 1980) with its simple vector graphic tanks – two sticks were needed for complete control of movement. Battlezone was the first game to make this twin stick control mechanism work – but it wasn’t very popular in arcades, because people found these literal “tank controls” too difficult. Players in the community of gamer hobbyists had to be won-over to this more complex control mechanism over time, and with careful attention to iterative development of the interface design.

The PC drove this process – it’s mouse and keyboard configuration was ideally suited to this development. Early id Software games used WASD to move; once this skill was mastered, the addition of look on the mouse followed naturally. The fit to the real time 3D first person projection of games such as Quake (id Software, 1996) was nearly perfect, and players lapped up the “playground tag” experience that flowed from the placement of a gun prop into this representational configuration.

Getting the same mechanics onto consoles was tougher, but GoldenEye 007 (Rare, 1997) offered one of the first major solutions by using the N64’s C-buttons as a surrogate for WASD, while using them for looking rather than movement. With the arrival of dedicated twin stick controllers such as Sony’s DualAnalog (1995) – a rare case of Sony leading rather than following with hardware design – the console shooter scheme rapidly came in line with the PC, and the control standards of the gun game became established. Once twin stick control schemes were widely learned, third person projection of 3D gun games became viable, piggybacking on the technical and functional achievements of first person games.

Thus the first person shooter genre and its cousin the third person shooter are examples of a hugely successful gamer hobbyist niche market in which game design (in the sense of functional design) was never really in the driving seat. The evolution of the form was dictated primarily by representational factors, with the role of design being chiefly to solve the functional consequences that flowed from the representational choices. The only “choice” was whether to work with guns as a central prop or not: once the gun was installed, the representational consequences of the technology available (in terms of graphical power, and in terms of controller devices) dictated the development of the form. Gameplay did not trump representation in shooters – it was dependent upon it.

Interested in the relationship between imagination and games? The book Imaginary Games might be for you.

Next week: Digital Dominance – Goals

Develop 100 Now Officially Pointless

Develop 100 When the Develop 100 launched several years ago, it was an eye opener – the top hundred game studios, ranked by the revenue generated by the games they made. It was serious data, and it presented a valuable snapshot of the digital games industry.

Today, the new Develop 100 landed on my desk – this year, ranked by Metacritic scores. Now last year, Develop 100 lacked the actual commercial figures, and was based on some behind-the-scenes shenanigans that wasn’t fully explicated. That was a disappointment. This year, however, they have truly jumped the shark with a top 100 list that is almost entirely meaningless. The fact that Revolution – a studio I respect, but which by any commercial measure is having a dismal few years – ranks at #47 just shows how pointless this new league table has become.

The problem is digital sales: the data doesn’t exist, and without it, trying to examine the industry commercially is extremely challenging. But substituting review scores for financial data isn’t an answer. It’s tantamount to giving up on the goal altogether. The new Develop 100 isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on – a vacuous mirage of the games industry based on the blinkered perspective of reviewers, rather than the cold, hard facts on the ground. I really don’t know why anyone is supposed to care about this list.

Companies live or die on their ability to keep staff employed. This is based on the money they make, not the review scores they garner. If this pathetic travesty is the best Develop 100 can manage, they might as well throw in the towel.

Imaginary Games: Publication Date, Cover and Available for Review

Imaginary Games.Final Cover

I now have the final text and cover (left) and a publication date for my first book of games philosophy, Imaginary Games. It will be out 25th November 2011. If you don’t know what this book is about, click the link in this post (or the picture in the sidebar) to read the blurb.

Thanks to everyone whose supported this book project! I’m very proud to have my first book of philosophy coming into print this year.

Reviewers Wanted! If you write book reviews for a magazine or on your blog, you are welcome to write to me (follow the contact details on for a PDF of the final text for review. If you intend a blog review, I request that you also submit your review to Amazon.

Also: check out these awesome endorsements!

In this well-researched book Chris Bateman explores the ambiguous territory between the fictional and the real, and slays some dragons hiding therein. Highly recommended.
Ernest Adams
Founder of the International Game Developers' Association

A wonderfully refreshing and inventive look at games of many kinds, but especially digital games. It is seriously philosophical, but Bateman, a professional game designer, draws on a huge variety of resources far beyond the writings of academic philosophers - fascinating and fun!
Kendall Walton
Charles Stevenson Collegiate Professor of Philosophy and Professor of Art and Design at the University of Michigan

Chris Bateman’s Imaginary Games may just do for videogames what Noël Carroll’s The Philosophy of Horror did for scary books and movies.... not only philosophically compelling and interesting; it is also a great read. Bateman’s fluency in the relevant philosophical debates and history of thinking about games is both enviable and a pleasure to behold.
Jon Cogburn
Director of Philosophy, LSU Department of Philosophy and
Religious Studies

Cross-posted from Only a Game.

The Role of Failure in Gameplay

ACSW How important is failure to the enjoyment of digital games? I contend it is the central issue in designing for an audience, since players who want to strive against impossible odds and eventually triumph must fail in order to enjoy their success, while the vast majority of mass market players will tolerate only a modest degree of failure as part of their play experience.

For many years I have advocated attention to the issue of whether gameplay should be fail-repeat – as the old school arcade games always were – or fail-continue, allowing the player to proceed even if they can’t master a particular challenge. It’s taken a long time, but the industry is finally catching up to my argument that if you want to reach a wide audience, you need to offer them tools to prevent the bottlenecking associated with fail-repeat. But there’s a cost – because fail-repeat is also important for players who are triumph-seekers, and who need to strive against impossible odds to get their eventual reward.

In this piece, I review the issues of balancing fail-repeat against fail-continue, specifically in the context of the Air Conflicts games, where I have been lucky enough to be able to experiment with new game structures for better management of frustration.


Infuriating Failures

Recently, I was playing Nitrome gamesCanary (at the suggestion of longtime ihobo stalward, Roman Age) and thinking about the role of repetition in gameplay, as I often do. Canary has a great central mechanic involving using a laser to cut through rock, which then drops down and can be pushed about. But it has a fixed rate of scrolling, so failure often happens as a result of bad screen positioning. This in itself would be tolerable, but alas failure means you start the entire level at the beginning, without any check-pointing, and this caused me to rapidly lose interest in the game.

Fail-repeat has long been a topic of interest for me – see this old post of mine from 2005 on Ratcheted Progress, for instance, which although rough around the edges is still quite pertinent. I have long advocated a fail-continue structure in which the player is not required to repeat gameplay sections as a vital tool for reaching out to a mass market audience – and I have often been met with incredulity and derision by publishers and developers stuck inside gamer hobbyist thinking. I wrote about this in 2008 under the title Freedom to Fail. Last year, I was thrilled to find no lesser a games industry celebrity than Miyamoto-san endorsing fail-continue in the design of New Super Mario Bros. Wii, implementing features I’ve been experimenting for many years.

It is important to recognise that for an important minority of gamer hobbyists, failure is a vital element of their play. Such players are not usually conscious of this circumstance – although they may recognise that what they enjoy is the intense states of emotional arousal games can illicit in them, characterised by heart-pounding excitement and furious anger that motivates continuing play. I have linked the role of anger in perseverance to testosterone, on the basis of recent neurobiological research, and am confident this stance will be validated. But I have written considerably less about the intensity of excitement that often (but not always) goes hand-in-hand with the anger.

It is well known that there is a relationship between risk and reward – gambling thrives on this coupling. Real time digital games also thrive on risk-reward relationships; to generate strong emotional responses from players it is not strictly necessary that they fail provided the cost of failure is sufficiently high. This is why “permadeath” (when failure has permanent consequences) creates such an extreme play experience – the risk is perceived as gigantic. It is also why permadeath will never be an especially popular game mechanic, since these extreme costs for failure radically winnow the possible players to a very tiny pool of diehards.

The main cost of failure that players are “threatened” with is repetition – complete this challenge, or you will have to do it all again. There is a fine line to be walked here, because failure is always frustrating to some degree, and frustration (being an experience of anger, connected with the neurotransmitter norepinephrine) is a cumulative emotion – the more frustration, the angrier you get. Become too angry, and you stop playing. This is where testosterone comes in, since one important effect of this chemical is to increase tolerance to anger and foster perseverance, allowing testosterone-infused players to endure frustrations that seem incomprehensible to many observers.

Because the risk of repetition is used to enhance the reward of success – to create the experience of fiero, triumph over adversity – there is an important role for failure in play. But because perseverance in the face of frustrations is a minority interest, related partly to testosterone, games that leverage these kind of mechanics narrow their audience quite significantly. There’s a reason that Nintendogs can sell 24 million units – four times as many units as Gears of War – and testosterone-moderated tolerance for frustration is an important part of the story of why the latter game appeals to a much smaller audience. The fail-repeat gameplay that violent action games depend upon is both the reason for their success, and the reason that the ceiling for their success is always radically less than it is for a true mass market game.


Freedom from Failure

The alternative to fail-repeat is what I have termed fail-continue structures: failure does not end the game, the game simply continues. There may be rewards for succeeding that are not won, but with fail-continue the player’s progression through the game is not linked to succeeding at specific tasks. This has become an absolutely vital force in commercial game design for the mass market, as the lineage of games that passes through Harvest Moon and Animal Crossing right into the heart of the Facebook “farming” games all attest to the increasing commercial relevance of game structures where failure is either a trivial or a non-existent element of play.

One of the main places I’ve been experimenting with fail-continue is in the Air Conflicts games, which are made by the development team 3 Division, a part of Slovakian developer Games Farm. The first of these games, called simply Air Conflicts, was my first successful experiment with fail-continue, using an approach similar to early games such as Defender of the Crown: failing in a mission is part of the story, and the narrative continues regardless (achieved in Air Conflicts by having a squadron of planes that is restocked as the player succeeds, so losing a plane is meaningful). In the second game, Attack on Pearl Harbor, a compromise was reached between the triumph-seeking player’s desire to strive to overcome and the mass market desire never to be bottlenecked, and the fail-continue feature was simplified to something very simple: the choice, after each mission, of whether to replay it. Want to beat it, and earn the emotional reward of fiero? Try as often as you like. Don’t want to? Just move onto the next mission.

The beauty of this mechanic is that it leaves it entirely up to the player how to approach their play. If you are what I have termed a Conqueror style player, you will want to repeat the challenge until you win. But if you aren’t, you might prefer to move on rather than get stuck. Offering a choice to replay or continue after each mission failure provides a simple and elegant choice, one that we have used again in the third game in the trilogy, Air Conflicts: Secret Wars (pictured above). For this one, the idea of a hanger-full of planes has returned, so accepting failure means you can’t fly the plane you just crashed until its repaired, a mechanic that works surprisingly well to mediate replay of specific missions. There is also a limit on the number of skips per chapter, a requirement since if you don’t complete enough mission objectives you don’t earn new planes and thus find yourself at a radical disadvantage.

A new style of fail-continue was added to this new game. The story of Secret Wars involves fighting alongside the resistance movements of World War II, using real battles and events – often with very depressing outcomes. At the end of each chapter, a flashback reveals some of the backstory by using some equally depressing battles set in World War I. During the flashbacks, a narrator character – one of several pilots who flew in the Great War – tells their story, and the events are echoed in the play of the mission. Because it’s a flashback, it makes no sense to fail, so if you crash or are shot down the narrator remarks that “it didn’t happen like that…” and you take to the skies again. You can’t fail these flashbacks – they serve the narrative role of a cut scene, but the player is in control of their plane throughout. I see this as a really effective storytelling technique, that also happens to be fail-continue.

Alas, when all is said and done, the Air Conflicts games aren’t going to enjoy astronomical commercial success because they are at heart arcade flight sims – I hope that more players will discover these great little games, but I know that there is only a limited audience for any game requiring three-dimensional control skills (such as a flight sim – even an arcade-style flying game). However, I hope that my experiments with fail-continue structure here will serve as an inspiration for new possibilities in other genres – and even if no-one else pays attention to what we’ve been doing with these games



Players who want to be driven to the edge of their limits will always be an important part of the market for digital games – and for the most part, this audience will always be comprised primarily of teenage boys, not uncoincidentally, those who are in the grip of significant swings in testosterone levels. But as the rising cost of development on the power consoles has sky-rocketed, the number of franchises that can compete for this audience has been radically reduced. There is almost no point in entering this arena now unless you have the resources to compete at the level of, say, Call of Duty. Not making the grade (for instance, Brink), is a costly business, and can even result in studios closing (although I believe Splash Damage will live to fight again). For new companies, targeting this market is suicide.

Where there are still opportunities for new game developers is in the mass market for games, and one of the key ways in which game design can help open up new markets is by finding new solutions to the problem of failure. The wider audience for games is not interested in failing, or at least, is not willing to tolerate a high cost of failure (of course, some failures are very low cost – fail at Bejewelled, and you lose very little, and generally want to play again right away). Because of this aversion to repetition, frustration and costly mistakes, exploring new solutions to the problem of failure in games has the potential to be highly profitable.

Fail-continue structures are one way of reaching out to this wider audience – and there are many different ways to mount this kind of  mechanism, most of which have never been tried. Some may prove to be the foundation of entirely new game genres, and those developers that discover these untapped niches stand to make astronomical profits. Perhaps I’ll be lucky and be involved in one of these games, but even if I’m not, I’m still glad to have been ahead of the curve on the role of failure in games, and, over the course of the last five years, to have been proved correct in respect of the commercial importance of freedom from failure.