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March 2009

What is International Hobo?

One of the world’s most successful game design, narrative design and scriptwriting consultancies, International Hobo is an alliance of the best creative talent in the videogames industry. Games the company has worked upon have collectively sold more than 10 million units, and franchises its members have worked on have sold in excess of 80 million units.

The company has worked on titles targeting the core audience for videogames such as S.T.A.L.K.E.R. (2 million units), as well as titles targeting more unusual audiences, such as Bratz: Rock Angelz (1.4 million units). It provided the first proof that external game design was a viable proposition with Ghost Master (90% review score in PC Gamer), and has also worked on chart topping titles like Reservoir Dogs.

The members of International Hobo have worked on major game projects for the world’s largest publishers, including Electronic Arts, Sony Computer Entertainment Europe, Ubisoft, THQ, Take 2, Namco, Atari, Eidos, Codemasters, Vivendi Universal, SCi, 3DO, and Turner Interactive.

International Hobo Ltd

The core team for International Hobo (also known as ihobo) operate out of the UK office in Manchester, under the leadership of Chris Bateman, who worked on three tabletop role-playing games, and several point-and-click adventurers before founding International Hobo in 1999. His script for Discworld Noir is highly regarded, and was praised by The Times newspaper as “the best scripted game we have seen.” Will Wright described Chris’s design for Ghost Master as “the best I’ve seen so far” in terms of following in the footsteps of his hugely successful brand, The Sims.

As well as working on more than twenty successful videogame titles across all platforms, International Hobo has had a prominent role in developing and sharing the skills and knowledge required to make commercially successful games, and have lectured on game design and game writing around the world, including for the BBC. In 2003, the company was nominated for the prestigious Develop Industry Excellence Award.

Along with Rich Dansky (recently named as one of the Top 20 Game Writers), Chris founded the IGDA’s Game Writers’ Special Interest Group in 2002, and served on the executive panel for the group for five years, producing an award-nominated book, Game Writing: Narrative Skills for Videogames. In 2007, the IGDA awarded Chris their prestigious MVP Award for "for outstanding and immeasurable contributions to the IGDA and the betterment of the game development community.”

The core team’s specialities are role-playing games, toyplay sims, platform games, and games targeting unconventional audiences. They are a registered developer for Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo.

Ernest Adams Design Consulting and Training

In 2001, Ernest Adams’ consultancy joined International Hobo, providing direct consultancy services, as well as design advice and professional training, to some of the world’s leading companies. With twenty years of experience in the games industry, eight of them with the world’s largest publisher, Electronic Arts, Ernest is one of the most famous game designers working in the industry today.

Ernest's best-known work was the multi-million selling Madden NFL Football franchise. He also worked on the popular Dungeon Keeper franchise while at famed British developer Bullfrog. Ernest founded the International Game Developers’ Association, and was instrumental in the early years of the Game Developers’ Conference, at which he has lectured every year. His book, Fundamentals of Game Design, is considered one of the essential reference works on the subject of designing videogames.

Quantum Content

Wendy Despain’s consultancy, Quantum Content, joined International Hobo in 2007. Wendy came to videogames after extensive experience in television, having worked on numerous shows including the posthumous Gene Roddenberry science fiction adventures Andromeda and Earth: Final Conflict, the Marvel TV show Mutant X, and fantasy adventure show BeastMaster, based on the novel by Andre Norton, which was also made into a film in 1982.

Wendy is one of the most influential figures in videogame writing, having served as Chair of the IGDA’s Writing SIG for several years. She edited and contributed to two books with the SIG, Professional Techniques for Video Game Writing and Writing for Video Game Genres: From FPS to RPG. Her videogames include the MMORPGs Archlord (half a million subscribers) and FusionFall, as well as numerous children’s titles, such as Bratz: Forever Diamondz and Jakers! Let’s Explore!

In 2008 Wendy was invited to join the exclusive game design think-tank Project Horseshoe, and contributes to the Virtual Policy Network as they explore the policy implications of virtual worlds. She is also a frequent contributor to the industry magazine The Escapist. She has been on the faculty for GDC every year since 2007, and Austin GDC since 2006.

Quantum Content’s specialities include children’s games, Alternate Reality Games (ARGs), and MMORPGs, with experience working on both fantasy and science fiction settings.

Player Modelling

International Hobo is a world leader in modelling the audience for games. In 2005, they published their acclaimed book 21st Century Game Design, by Chris Bateman and fellow ihobo member Richard Boon. As well as exploring the diverse techniques for game design, the book also describes the DGD1 model, which along with Richard Bartle’s typing system for MMORPGs and Nicole Lazzaro’s Four Fun Keys, is one of the most heavily referenced models of play. In 2008, Chris was invited to join the IEEE's Task Force on Player Satisfaction Modelling.

A new book entitled Beyond Game Design: Nine Steps Towards Creating Better Videogames was recently published, and contains substantial material by Chris Bateman, who also served as editor. The book contains essays by some of the industry’s most influential individuals – Nicole Lazzaro, Katherine Isbister, Noah Falstein, Sheri Graner Ray, Michelle Hinn, Joseph Saulter and Richard Bartle – covering ways of modelling and understanding play, as well as discussions on how to maximise the potential for videogames by expanding their appeal to everyone.

International Hobo’s new audience model, BrainHex, based upon the latest research connecting neurobiology to videogame play, some of which has been published here on this site, will be launched later in 2009.

Interested in hiring International Hobo for your project? Click here to get in touch.

PixelJunk Interview

Dylan Cuthbert.greyscale Dylan Cuthbert has been working in videogames for more than twenty years. He started his career at Argonaut, where amongst other things he made the original Star Fox game on the SNES with Nintendo. After working with Sony of America and Sony Japan, he eventually founded his own Kyoto-based developer, Q-Games, one of the few studios in the world to combine Japanese and international talent under one roof. Working closely with both Nintendo and Sony, Dylan’s company has worked on all manner of unusual projects, such as the audio visualisation applications on the Sony PS3 (the “earth from space” is a particular favourite at ihobo). I caught up with Dylan to ask him about his company’s PixelJunk brand, which has already attained something of a cult status.

Chris Bateman: I understand the PixelJunk series was created to explore what could be done with traditional two-dimensional gameplay on a high definition screen. What motivated you to explore this?

Dylan Cuthbert: I grew up learning to program and develop games on the very first 8-bit computers like the Sinclair ZX-81 and Spectrum. The sheer range of ideas and games back then was great!  People didn't care so much about how the games looked, so it let people experiment a lot more in the systems that make a game interesting.  I grew up with all that and started feeling that the games I was seeing around me weren't showing the sheer breadth of creativity that existed back in those 8-bit days.

So, I started PixelJunk to explore what else could be done with 2d, but on top of that I wanted to bring modern technology to the table, and with the advance of HDTV and, more importantly HDMI (that gave us a digital signal and proper colours at last!) we had the chance to do something new again in the 2d arena.
Chris: With the first game, PixelJunk Racers, you had a variety of challenges based around slot car racing, and the second game, PixelJunk Monsters, was a neatly polished tower defence game. What attracted you to the Tower Defence genre?

Dylan: I have always been a huge RTS fan, since the days of Dune and the very first Command and Conquer. Even now I play Red Alert 3 every lunchtime without fail with anyone who is willing to be beaten here at work!  What I saw in Tower Defence games was a chance to bring RTS’s to the regular, casual gaming public in a way that it hadn't been brought to them before.  Right from the start I made it a character based game, and had elements like the dancing to upgrade your towers, and the dropping of coins, all of which worked to give casual players a comfortable interface for what is actually quite a hardcore game.  I think this is why casual players and hardcore players alike really enjoy Monsters.

Chris: Then we come to PixelJunk Eden. The aesthetic behind this game is quite unique, with the strange animated plantlife that serve as platforms, and a trippy electronica score. Which came first, the visuals or the audio?

Dylan: The visuals came first – Baiyon showed some of his art and immediately one of the pictures leaped out at me, and that was a strange collage of spacey plant-life. From that picture we iterated and evolved the look of Eden.  The music came in a bit later, although we were already playing it alongside our earliest demos of the game.

Chris: At heart, Eden is a platform game, but it doesn't play anything like a traditional 2D platformer. Did you begin with the idea to make a 2D platform game, and then come up with the idea for collecting pollen to open seeds that grow new plants for you to jump to, or did the idea for the platform elements come later, after you'd tried some other ideas involving the seeds and plants?

Dylan: I don't like doing anything too conventional, and we started with a jumping "spider" because I wanted to make a game with elements of an old ZX Spectrum game called Bugaboo the Flea that I really liked.

Chris: Bugaboo was never on sale in the States, I think, but it was a big hit in its day in Europe, getting rave reviews back in 1983. Anyone who had a ZX Spectrum tends to remember it.

Dylan: As we implemented the jumping spider idea we found that as the screen got more crowded with plants the spider would keep hitting them, so that's when we introduced the grip mechanic to let the player decide when he wants to just go right on through a plant.  We already had floating "prowlers" in the game right from our very first demo and smashing them to generate pollen was also in there from an early point, but the auto-filling of seeds happened quite late on in the project.  Initially we just had it so you had to collect the pollen as your score, but then it struck us that it would be very fluid looking to have the pollen fly to the nearest seeds around you, overflowing to fill the seeds near them etc.

Chris: One of the unique aspects of the platform play of Eden is the fact you have access at all times to both jumping and spinning on thread, a form of rope mechanics. Was there ever any idea of using the 'ropes' without jumping, or the jumping without the 'ropes'?

Dylan: Initially there wasn't a rope (or silk as we call it) but it was one of the earliest things we added along with the grip mechanic as we iterated the game mechanics and play-tested the game.  It just felt natural to have the silk in the game.  We did do some tests around that point where we removed the silk, but it steadily became integral to the game, especially when we introduced the mechanic that it can destroy the weaker prowlers and collect pollen.

Chris: It’s interesting that you added that later, since spinning to pop prowlers and collect pollen is a basic tactic in the finished game.

Dylan: As I say, we have a very iterative design process.

Chris:  The Grimps, the cute avatars in the game, were apparently a last minute addition. What did you have before, and how did they come to be added?

Dylan: We had a nondescript "blob" and an odd elephant-like creature that stood on its hind legs.  Luckily we settled on the Grimps and I am really happy with the way their "floppy horns" flap around when you are jumping here and there.

Chris: PixelJunk Eden is a lot of fun single player, but you also have a three player co-op mode. PixelJunk Monsters also plays in a great two player co-op mode – which my wife loves, much to my surprise. Is co-operative play something you were keen to explore in the PixelJunk games?

Dylan: Co-operative play is great fun, for Racers of course there is no co-operative play, but I think with Monsters we started realizing how much fun co-op was so we will always try to implement it if we can.  We have received lots of mails from couples, fathers & daughters and so on, who have all really enjoyed playing our games together.

Chris: In the three player mode of Eden, the players get penalised heavily if one of them falls off, as the camera often follows the falling grimp, "popping" the others and causing a loss of pollen. It forces players to work as a team, but it also frustrates players who aren't used to working in this way. Was there an internal logic behind this design choice? (And what is the logic behind the camera behaviour?)

Dylan: We fixed the camera logic in the patch in January, so now it simply follows the highest player on the screen.  Initially we were trying something more complicated because sometimes a leap of faith was required sideways or downwards and the camera wouldn't follow them.  But in the end of the day that motion appears to feel more natural so we simplified it, so now the camera will stay with the players that are highest on the screen, just make sure you grip something.

Chris: That was one of several fixes in your recent update for PixelJunk Eden. Another was making the game easier by slowing the rate that time ticks down, and giving more time for collecting the big crystals. Was this in response to criticisms the game had received for being too tight on the time requirements?

Dylan: Well, the game was a little too difficult so we softened it up slightly; at least the hardcore gamers got their fun out of it before we did that!  I personally enjoy it more at the original hard setting but I'm a bit of an old-school hard-core gamer and sometimes I forget that (laugh)!

Chris: PixelJunk Eden has been entered into this year's Independent Games Festival – I’m not certain, but I think this is the first PS3 exclusive to make it into this competition. How do you feel about Eden being in the IGF?

Dylan: Well, Flow and Everyday Shooter before they were moved to PS3 both won the IGF in several categories so I think it's pretty cool.  PSN is still a fairly new service and it is giving a lot of power to indie devs such as ourselves.  We've also been nominated for the GDC Choice awards.

Chris: So what do you have planned for the fourth PixelJunk game?

Dylan: Something interesting!  It's still secret but it will be something that invokes old memories yet has something completely new and unused before in it too.

You can vote for PixelJunk Eden in the IGF Audience Awards, but the voting ends on Friday 20th March so get your skates on! All the PixelJunk games are available exclusively from the PS3’s online store.

ihobo at GDC 2009

International Hobo have two members giving talks at GDC in San Francisco this year: Wendy Despain and Ernest Adams are both speaking at their own sessions, and Wendy is also on a panel.

Fundamentals of Game Design Workshop is Ernest's sold-out session, and aims to provide an intensive, day-long tutorial about the fundamentals of computer game design. During the session attendees will be divided into game design groups and given specific roles to play. At the end of the day team leaders will give a presentation on their group's work and discuss with the rest of the workgroup.

Wendy will be chairing the IGDA Writing SIG roundtable again this year. The session will go over all the accomplishments of the past year and also highlight some other projects the Writing SIG is involved with. Anyone interested in game writing is encouraged to attend.

Wendy will also be part of the panel talking about The Dating Game, which was the title of her recent Escapist article:

Can a game stand on equal footing with film in regards to a quality first date? Videogames and films are often compared and contrasted with each other in terms of their artistic value as well as common elements of pop culture. While nearly every other aspect of these two media have been discussed the elusive search for a game that could start relationships remains. This panel session offers a comparison of film and games to try to identify the challenges and possibilities that Date-centric game design may hold for the future.

All of us here at ihobo wish Wendy and Ernest good luck with their respective sessions.

Sheri Graner Ray vs Videogames Industry


For some time now, I’ve been less-than-subtly pressuring Sheri Graner Ray into blogging, and this year she has finally thrown her hat into the ring with a new blog, FEM IRL (female in real life). To celebrate, I decided to interview Sheri about her career in videogames, and why the industry is still struggling to understand the benefits of gender-inclusive game design.

Chris Bateman: You've worked for some of the major companies in the games industry, including EA, Origin, and Sony. At some point, you became the de facto spokesperson for women in the games industry – how did that happen?

Sheri Graner Ray: I’ve always like games – both table top and computer games – and I consider myself to be a pretty typical girl. So I didn’t understand why there weren’t more women playing computer games. Out of curiosity I began to do a little research. It quickly became very apparent that as an industry we were making some pretty major mistakes that actively kept women out of our games.

So, thinking the industry would want to know how to make more money, I began to talk about what I’d discovered. Imagine my surprise when, instead of a positive response, I was greeted with derision – one guy actually stood up in the middle of a talk I was giving at GDC (CGDC back then) and started calling me names.

Chris: How rude!

Sheri: Well I guess I’m just stubborn because instead of dissuading me, this behaviour just made me more determined to get the word out. So, I guess basically I’m just a game designer that can’t keep quiet when I think we, as an industry, are making big mistakes!

Chris: Well since then there has been significant progress, hasn’t there? Female players now make up 40% of the market for games, and 25% of the console market. That's a huge step up from where we were, say, ten years ago.

Sheri: Oh please be careful with those numbers! I hear them so often now and usually it’s from publishers patting themselves on the back saying “See? Our game audience is now 40% female. We can relax now and not change a thing!”

Chris: So you don’t think there’s been an improvement?

Sheri: There’s definitely been an improvement, but like most lies, damned lies and statistics, the numbers are very misleading. The reason these numbers look so good is it’s an average – the traditional game market is still less than 20% female. However, the “casual” game market is 70% female. Average those and you get 40% female audience over all. But that does not mean 40% of the players of Gears of War are female!

Chris: But if the casual games market is doing so well courting female players, what’s the problem? 

Sheri: Most of the development capital is still in the traditional titles, and these are still missing out on a huge chunk of the market.

Chris: By traditional titles, do you mean console videogames?

Sheri: Mostly, but don’t forget that MMOs are still focused mostly on the PC market. By the traditional titles, I mean all the big titles – it’s where the money is and where the best jobs can be found. If we continue to keep women out of those titles, we will continue to keep them out of the industry and the industry overall will suffer for it.

Chris: Is there still a fundamental misunderstanding about women gamers, in that people think you need to make games especially for them? I ask, because it's becoming clear that huge brands like Final Fantasy (which has sold 85 million games across all its iterations) and Mario (201 million games) – not to mention The Sims (100 million) – have all succeeded in part because they appeal to both men and women.

Sheri: The game industry has long been looking for the “silver bullet” that one magic title that all women will play. They thought they had it with the “pink” Barbie games. Then they thought they had it with the Sims games. Currently they think they have it with the “casual” online games. Each of these categories of games has made money, but each time it results in the same thing, the entire market of “women” is re-categorized as one genre.

Chris: As if people can’t get their head around the idea that there might be as much diversity among female players as there is in male players… Although sometimes I wonder if the industry has even got their head around the diversity of male players, to be honest!

Sheri: If anyone is familiar with the history of the women’s suffrage movement, you will see some surprising similarities with the way the games industry looks at female players. One of the big “fears” about giving women the right to vote was that they would become one huge homogeneous voting bloc that could, in theory, control the outcome of every single vote. Of course, this proved to be completely untrue as, lo and behold, women did not all believe the same thing, want the same thing, nor vote the same way. Thus, there was no monolithic voting bloc that upset all politics as we know it.

It’s the same in games. There is no, one monolithic audience called “Women” who all want exactly the same thing in games. It actually is one million markets… each one with its own tastes and wants in entertainment. The only thing these markets share in common is a particular chromosomal make-up! 

Chris: But you’re not saying that you can’t target a specific female demographic?

Sheri: No, of course not – the female market is certainly a valid market for making targeted products for: the romance book market has figured this out, as has Hollywood, with the “chick flicks”. However, you can’t just say “this is for women.” You have to categorize and analyze your target demographic just as you would for any other demographic. You need to say, “this is for women between the ages of 10-18 who like backpacking, camping and other outdoor recreational activities” or you need to say, “This is for men, ages 25-50 who live in suburban areas, are college educated, and own at least one classic car.” 

The better you can define your market, the better you can pinpoint what that market wants, what they need  and how you can the better target your product to them… regardless of gender!  

Chris: We recently processed the data on people's favourite games from our last player study and found that role-playing games are hugely popular with both men and women – 20% of the male players and 20% of the female players surveyed listed RPGs among their three favourite games, more than any other genre. And this wasn't just Final Fantasy but also the Elder Scrolls gamesand even older games like Baldur's Gate – all beloved by both male and female players. Why do you think RPGs have such cross-gender appeal?

Sheri: I think it’s because they provide the more flexible play styles. In other words, they appeal to a broad demographic because more people can find their preferred play style in them.

Chris: Another thing the player study showed up was that while first person shooters were hugely popular among the male gamers (about as popular as RPGs), they didn't interest the female players at all. And in fact, RPGs and RPG-like games that used guns like Deus Ex and Fallout rated okay with male players but not with female players. Do you think there's something about guns that female players find off-putting, or is it just that fantasy settings are generally more appealing to them?

Sheri: Neither. I think you’ll find that the vast majority of female players have never tried a FPS. So to say they inherently don’t like them is a bit like saying female don’t like the food served in strip clubs. How can you know that? Very few women go there!

Chris: But there are women who play and love FPS’s, of course.

Sheri: Well I should give my disclaimer here! When I say something is “female” or “male” I mean it is predominantly a trait of that gender. It is not exclusively that gender. Everything is a bell curve and there are people who fall in all areas of that curve. If you are female and a lover of FPS, then the generalisation is obviously not pertaining to you.

Chris: But you agree there’s a disparity of some kind here.

Sheri: I would say it has nothing to do with the guns or the violence. All research I’ve done has shown that girls have no problem with violence. What they do have a problem with is violence for violence sake. In other words, violence isn’t bad because it’s “icky” but because it’s boring.

Chris: Happy to beat someone up as long as there’s a reason for it!

Sheri: Something like that. I suspect the reason few women play FPS games has less to do with the guns or the violence and more to do with the barriers to access in the titles today. Inherently weak stories (which mean little reason for the violence), male-only avatars or female avatars that are hyper-sexualized, a focus on head-to-head competition, punishment for error models... all these kinds of things are less appealing to most women, and therefore are barriers to access for the titles.

Chris: What about the Grand Theft Auto games? Although these were marginally more popular with male players, an awfully large number of female players rate one of these games as a personal favourite, especially San Andreas. Is part of the appeal here that Rockstar North (I still think of them as DMA design, I confess!) just make really fun virtual worlds to play in?

Sheri: The GTA games are open, virtual worlds thus, much like the RPGs we talked about earlier, appeal to more people because more play styles are able to be expressed. It’s a bit like the difference between a playground and a single theme park ride. You can do what you want in a playground. With a lone themepark ride, it’s a one trick pony.

Chris: It seems to me, looking at the games that have been succeeding in the wake of what you might call "the casual revolution" that part of the success of the casual games movement has been that games are being designed either for female players, or at least in a way that doesn't exclude them. I look at the huge success of hidden object games like Mystery Case Files, for instance, and think: these were made for a female audience!

Sheri: I agree. However, please be careful by calling them “female games.” As I mentioned before, there are as many different wants and needs in games as there are women, so we must be careful categorizing anything as “for a female audience” Note that we don’t call regular games “for a young male audience.” We say the “Traditional” audience and all assume it’s young males ages 12-21. We need to come up with terms that are more specific to the demographic than “female audience” if we want to avoid the problems the “pink games” had back in the 90’s.

Chris: Is this perhaps the secret to Nintendo’s recent success? When I look at the games that Nintendo have been selling in huge numbers, it seems clear that female consumers are part of the equation – I'm thinking specifically of Nintendogs (22 million), Brain Age (17 million), Wii Fit (14 million) and Animal Crossing (11 million). None of these games appeal solely to women, but it's hard not to imagine that a large number of women have bought them, and Nintendo's marketing reinforces that impression.

Sheri: Yes! These games are successful because they target other demographics beyond the “traditional” game demographic. It is about time the game industry figured out they can make games for other demographics and be successful.

Chris: Do you think we're heading for parity in the market – an even split between male and female players?

Sheri: I hope so. We aren’t there yet. As stated above, the “40% of gamers are female” number is quite misleading. We still put the majority of our money into developing titles for that one single demographic: young white males. And, with the exception of the Wii, most console titles are still aimed squarely at that market. The game industry has to come to realize two things. Firstly, the female market is not a single monolithic market and secondly, they can access a huge number of new players by addressing barriers in their current titles. If both these problems can be overcome then we will begin to see parity.

Chris: Even though the female players are only 25% of the PS3 and Xbox 360 market, that's still more than 12 million players. When you think that selling a million is still considered a success in our industry, doesn't it seem like there's a lost opportunity here?

Sheri: Of course. The industry needs to look at their titles and address barriers to access and they can begin to reach more players. And not just female players, either but other minorities as well. There is still a huge untapped market out there. We’re effectively throwing money away!

Chris: Why do you think the console market has a smaller share of female players?

Sheri: For two reasons. Firstly, they are risk adverse. Come on now, if your job depended on selling 2 million units of a game, which would you want? A game that is just like the last game you sold 2 million units of – that you are comfortable with the concepts, the channels, the retail strategy for? Or some new game that you don’t really understand, don’t necessarily know the channel for and can’t really put numbers to. Obviously, you are going to go with what you know. However, that’s leaving a huge amount of money on the table.

Chris: And secondly?

Sheri: The industry continues to produce games without thought to barriers to access. Because some of the current games are selling in good numbers, few people think to look at what might be built into the games that might be keeping other markets from interacting with the product. The bikini-clad, heavy bosomed woman on the cover sells to that post-pubescent boy… marketing departments don’t even consider the fact that if a woman isn’t going to want to pick up the box, she isn’t going to buy the game for herself.

Chris: I think most marketing departments fear that changing the appeal of the box designs to allow for a female audience will weaken the appeal to the young male audience they are so intently focussed upon.

Sheri: So in the name of “it’s worked before", the industry as a whole continues to slam the door in the face of a number of markets that are tech savvy and have large amounts of disposable income to spend.

Chris: Well it’s clearly not a clever strategy, but it’s safe, and large corporations come to rely upon the safe options.

Sheri: Right up to the point they declare bankruptcy because some more agile competitor beat them to the punch on a new opportunity!

Chris: It’s a crazy business! If you could change one aspect of the games industry's development culture to make it easier for companies to profit from this large pool of female players with a love of games and money to spend, what would it be?

Sheri: The recruiting attitude and hiring practices of the industry, definitely. This sounds very strange, I know, but our industry has terrible hiring habits. We put ads in places only game industry folks will see, thus we advertise to the same people again and again. We refuse to consider skill sets, only experience, so, once again, we only hire from those who have been hired before,  and when we interview, we send the candidate through a full round of interviews with each team member, telling the team “tell us if you like this person” – which translates to “is this person just like you?” 

We never hire outside our comfort zone. Thus, we end up a very homogeneous work place. We are an industry of young white guys making games for… surprise! Young white guys! 

Chris: But it has to change at some point. Every other successful industry eventually hurdled these kinds of barriers.

Sheri: I think the biggest change will come from diversifying our work force. To do this, we have to actively recruit in non-traditional places, be willing to look at skill sets rather than explicit experience, and support those organizations that do outreach and mentoring for minority groups in the industry. If we want to build diverse products that reach broad, diverse audiences, then our workforce has to reflect that.

You can read more of Sheri’s unique perspective at her new blog, FEM IRL, and also in her chapter on designing for female players in Beyond Game Design. Spread the word!

Grip: The Biology of Compulsion

Pachinko What makes you come back to the game for “one more try” or “just a little longer”? Once again, it can be tied back to the pleasure centre (nucleus accumbens), as we saw with the enjoyment of all games.

You may have noticed Raph Koster and others linking to a Cambridge University study of the neurobiology of gambling showing that the part of the brain involved in reward – the pleasure centre – lights up when we nearly win, as well as when we win. Interestingly, the researchers report that subjects report this experience negatively, even though the pleasure centre is being stimulated. But of course, even though this may be a negative experience subjectively, most subjects who experienced a “near miss” continued to play on. The researchers note that this behaviour happens in both games of skill and games of chance.

I call this phenomena of compulsion in play Grip, and consider it to be a complimentary behaviour to Csikszentmihalyi's Flow, which I deconstructed in neurobiological terms the other week. If Flow is the constant and steady supply of the “reward protein” dopamine from the pleasure centre associated with a period of intense focus, then Grip occurs as a team-effort between the pleasure centre and the decision centre (orbit-frontal cortex), two parts of the brain that are very closely linked. The decision centre generates rewards (dopamine from the pleasure centre) when we make good decisions, and thus encourages us to learn good strategies and behaviours.

A team of Canadian researchers in 2003 reported that the reward system was activated in anticipation of uncertain rewards, which they suggest promotes the learning of better predictors of reward, and the new study is effectively a special case of this observation, showing that the degree of reward (the amount of dopamine released) peaks in the case of a “near miss”. This for me is an expected result, but it is still a highly significant paper not only for confirming this element of the research, but also for confirming that the response is the same in both challenges of skill and in games of chance (Caillois' agon and alea, respectively).This also tallies nicely with Thomas Malaby's conception of play as a disposition toward the indeterminate.

Almost all gamers understand the experience of Grip, although they do not use that term. It's what makes you give the game “one more try”, and why you find yourself still playing that cRPG at three in the morning, despite your intent to stop hours ago. In the recent straw poll on failure in videogames, a common response was that what motivated players to try again was their assessment of being close to success. Grip, which is the activation of the pleasure centre in anticipation of indeterminate reward, can happen in at least four distinct ways.

Angry Grip

In games of what Nicole Lazzaro calls “Hard Fun”, Grip occurs when you can almost overcome the challenge. The game frustrates you, slaps you down in failure, but because your decision centre assesses that you could have beaten it you keep playing. So the fight of the fight-or-flight mechanism riles you up and makes you angry (norepinephrine, and epinephrine), while the triggering of the pleasure centre in response to what you perceive as a “near miss” (whether or not you were close to winning or not, as players can often be deceived as to how close they are to victory) provides the Grip to compel you to continue fighting. As I have mentioned before, despite the fact that many games industry professionals consider this to be precisely what games are about, this is a minority approach to play – 20% of players recognise that they enjoy this “angry fun”, while over 40% strongly dislike it.

Frustrated Grip

Closely related to angry Grip is what happens in a game of chance, which connects with the Cambridge paper: when the player comes close to winning, it encourages them to try again. A sense of agency (the paper talks of decisions, but agency need not be based on decision, as in the case of dice) seems to be required for this form of Grip to connect.

This also applies to reward schedules based upon chance, such as the random treasure tables in a cRPG like Diablo (which was discussed briefly last week in the piece on the top cRPG franchises). The mechanism is exactly the same, but the level of frustration does not rise to combative anger as in the previous case. Rather, while the individual becomes a little angry (a small release of norepinephrine), the experience may register more as mild sadness than as anger (likely a change in the neurotransmitter serotonin). Because we recognise that we don't have the direct capacity to influence chance, this kind of Grip isn't combative, it merely compels us to try again in the face of a “near miss”.

Habitual Grip

Distinct from the anger-motivated forms of Grip, we can also experience this push towards continuing to play when we are in the grip of a reward schedule of the kind that constitutes the central progression structures of cRPGs and MMORPGs (again, discussed previously in the context of the top cRPG franchises). The circumstances here are slightly different as what is involved here is not the “near miss” effect we saw previously, but rather the promise of assured future reward. The decision centre seems to be the primary driver here – it knows you will get to the reward, and thus helps push players on towards that next reward.

The classic example is levelling up – you level up your character, gain new abilities, and perhaps see the promise of what you will get at the next level, and this motivates you to push on to achieve it. If every level your character gains gives you this anticipation of an even greater reward at a future level, the power of habitual Grip is maximal, and players can find it especially difficult to stop. (This seems to be especially true in the case of Goal-oriented players, those who strongly express the Judging axis in Myers-Briggs, or the Guardian temperament).

There is little or no uncertainty involved here – you know you will level up if you keep grinding, the only indeterminacy is how long it will take to get there. For some reason, this is enough to trigger Grip, the brain's response in the face of indeterminate reward. It can be even more compelling among players with highly developed decision centres (which I recently suggested correlates with the Rational temperament) who seem to get sucked into the question of determining the optimal manner of levelling up. Since good decisions stimulate the pleasure centre, the process of determining an optimal course of action helps players maintain interest in grinding – which helps explain why some (but by no means all) cRPG players lose interest when the optimal solution to levelling remains the same, thus denying the pleasure of devising a new optimal strategy.

However, it would be incorrect to assume that this strategic angle is a requirement. In this regard, an interesting comparison can be made between levelling up in a cRPG and playing old fashioned slot machines, penny falls or pachinko (a Japanese gambling game, pictured above - essentially a cross between Bagatelle and a slot machine). The feeling of continuing to play because "a win is coming" can be found here, and with greater uncertainty since despite the player's conviction it is still possible they may not get a payout before they run out of coins or balls. Penny falls machines (common in British seaside arcades) are even closer to the cRPG reward schedules, as prizes such as small stuffed toys ride along with the slowly-advancing tide of coins players know they will get the prize eventually, but generally misjudge how many coins it will take to get there.

Compelling Grip

A fourth and final way that we may experience Grip is in the desire to extend an experience of Flow – of which the most commonly manifested form is “one more game” of Tetris, or some other experience that can produce a Flow state (an experience of intense focus within a goal framework, but with the focus upon the experience and not the achievement of the goal). The indeterminacy here seems to relate to a perceived degree of performance – so the player begins a new game in the belief they can do slightly (or greatly) better in the next game.

Since the experience of Flow is intrinsically pleasurable – indeed, Csikszentmihalyi calls it “optimal experience” it is natural that we want to experience more of it. This compelling Grip happens almost entirely absent of anger, and as such appeals to a very broad spectrum of players. The strength of the compulsion is significantly less than in angry or frustrated Grip, and considerably weaker than habitual Grip too, but it is enough to encourage us to play again in the future. You could argue that this was the healthiest form of Grip, but that doesn't mean that players under its influence don't end up playing far longer than they intend to some of the time.


Grip is the term I am proposing for the various mechanisms involving the pleasure centre (nucleus accumbens) and the decision centre (orbito-frontal cortex) that compel players to continue playing a game in the pursuit of indeterminate reward. The immediate experience of Grip need not be pleasant – in angry and frustrated Grip it is perceived as negative – but when it happens it produces compulsive behaviour in which it is difficult for players to let go of the pursuit of the next reward, whether victory in the face of a difficult challenge, the big score in gambling, the next level in a cRPG, or simply the continued pursuit of the intrinsic pleasure of the state of Flow.

I welcome your perspective on Grip in the comments.