This page contains all entries posted to GAMBIT in May 2008. They are listed from oldest to newest.
April 2008 is the previous archive.
June 2008 is the next archive.
Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.
Dinos can't survive on bones alone
Dino Run is the best game of 2008. The premise is simple: a meteor hits the Earth, sets off a doom wave, and all the animals start running. A light homage to Pitfall, Dino combines the the exhilirating platform sprinter vibe of Sonic with the expressive vector graphics of Another World, the addictive multiplayer of SNES Mario Kart, a terminal micromusic soundtrack, and hats - really nice hats.
All hyperbolic comparisons aside, I had a fascinating experience with Dino Run that has set questions of intimacy and co-presence loose in my mind for the last few days. I was up late the night of Dino Run's release finishing school work. I took a break, found an acquaintance on IM, and convinced her to do the same. We agreed to meet up in "Dino Central" and, after a little messing around, we were running for our lives.
Having played the game a bit in lab that afternoon, I quickly leapt ahead of my dino buddy. Yet, despite every indication to keep on running, when I saw her little icon falling behind on the race map, I stopped, turned my dino around, and ran left to find out if she was stuck!
Critical moment here, folks. The decision to turn around is counter to the very core imperative, not to mention the driving narrative, of Dino Run: GO TO THE RIGHT.
I caught up to her easily and the two of us ran through the rest of the map within a few hundred pixels of one another. Why didn't I just blast through the level and leave her behind? It wasn't the same impulse that would cause me to go easy on a n00b in Street Fighter or for my sportier friends not to stuff me everytime I take a shot when we play (irl) basketball. I didn't turn around simply because I wanted to make the game fun. I turned around because to run ahead would have been to abandon her.
I can recall experiencing only one other moment of similarly strong emotional projection. Last year, a friend from my place of work invited me to visit a particularly spectacular build he had completed in Second Life. We met up in-world sometime in the evening and he lead me around his Zen garden, water fall, and tea house. As the tour came to an end, he lead me up a mountain to a tiny notch he'd carved for two avatars to sit and look out over the sea. Clicking on one of the orbs he'd installed on the ledge, I saw my short, gender-ambiguous avatar begin to snuggle up against my colleague's well-dressed male avatar.
I immediately felt like I had made a social faux paus and was compelled to apologize. After just a few minutes in SL, an environment I did not visit often, I had so fully given over my sense of self to my on-screen avatar that the nerves along my skin reacted to the unintended intimacy. Goosebumps (piel de gallina) stood visible along my forearms and my heart sped up. My body was reacting as though it had actually touched someone inappropriately rather than the avatar I was controlling with minute movements of my hands and wrists.
As my friend and I ran along the back of apatasaurus, I felt a similar blurring of boundaries, a sense of screen empathy. My dino-friend and I do not live in the same city and we know each other primarily through our work interests. Meeting up to play Dino Run seemed no different than chatting on gtalk until I actually saw our dinos running around in their pixelated world. It felt unexpectedly as though we were changing the terms of our friendship. Rather than work buddies, we are now friends who get together occasionally for recreational activities, however virtual they may be.
There is something both liberating and frightening about this experience of the projected self. It challenges the perceived edges of selfdom. If my selfness is so quick to jump ship for a cute little pile of dino-pixels, what is keeping it coming back to me everytime I turn the browser to another URL? Or is the self constantly shifting when I am connected to the network? Is my experience with the little dino just a more tangible manifestation of an everyday leapfrog: from username to inbox to avatar to photoshop tool to blinking cursor?
(Cross-posted to Todo Mundo.)
GAMBIT Highlights a Year of Development & Research: Wiip
This is part three of a multi-part series reflecting back on the games developed during the first year of the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab, a five-year research initiative created to address important challenges faced by the global digital game research community and industry. Last time, we looked at AudiOdyssey, a rhythm game designed to be playable by the sighted and the blind. Today we focus on Wiip, one of many games developed during the summer internship program.
Wiip was one of six games developed at GAMBIT this past summer. As you might have guessed from its name, the game uses the Wii remote as its main controller. The Wiimote, as it is commonly called, was chosen as the controller to give players a greater sense of immersion and agency in the game.
When playing Wiip, the player steps into the role of Mustachio, a circus ringmaster whose animals have gotten out of control. As the cute creatures run and bounce towards the screen, it is the player's job to stop the creatures before they attack. Fortunately for Mustachio, it only takes a simple crack of his bullwhip to tame the animals. Players can also utilize the whip crack, which triggers the combo system that has the potential to tame all the oncoming animals on the screen at once. But what does any of this have to do with research-oriented game design?
Alex Mitchell, Wiip's Product Owner, set out to explore the spectrum between abstraction and expression in game design, while creating a new vocabulary for interactivity in the process. This research goal was a driving force in the adoption of the Wiimote to play the game. The Wiimote makes use of multiple accelerometers to measure the movement and tilt of the controller. This technology allows the player to manipulate the Wimote like a real whip, creating a greater sense of immersion when playing the game. Although the game is meant to be played using the Wiimote, Wiip can also be played with a computer keyboard.
Wiip was conceptualized as a way to investigate controller expression, therefore choosing the correct control scheme was an integral part of the game design process. Trey Reyher, Wiip's Quality Assurance Lead, had this to say about the process:
"It was fascinating to see how testers responded to the controller. Those who were unfamiliar with the Wii remote played a bit timidly at first, whereas those who had used a bullwhip before could be seen gesticulating wildly in front of the computer screen. Eventually both groups tended toward a happy medium which allowed them optimal control with a minimum of exhaustion.
"We also encountered an unexpected difference in the play style of female versus male players. When female testers played Wiip, their movements tended to be more graceful and fluid than their male counterparts. This resulted in few of their motions exceeding the game's force threshold, which detects when a player's movement is significant enough to be interpreted as a swing of the whip. This was a challenging aspect to tune, since the threshold needs to be sensitive enough to correctly detect a swing without generating false positives as the player adjusted the direction of the Wii remote to target specific lanes. A compromise was reached after extensive focus testing of female players.
"Since we were targeting a broad audience, I tried to find as many testers as I could from the MIT community and beyond. Perhaps the best feedback I got was at a local ice cream parlor, where I was showing the game to some friends and observing their patterns of play. As they were playing, the employees of the store jumped over the counter and asked to play Wiip. They picked it up quickly, and seemed to greatly enjoy the game. In fact, one of them asked me, 'Did you just buy this next door?' I was confused until I recalled that the ice cream parlor was next to a game specialty retailer, and replied, 'No, we made this game.'"
More games in the Wiip universe are currently in development at the Singapore branch of the GAMBIT Lab.
Wiip was created by Alex Mitchell, Teo Chor Guan, Joshua Wong, Zhou Xuanming, Edmund Teo, Jonathan Johnson, Desmond Wong, Tio Lok Ling, Trey Reyher, contains original music by Guo Yuan, sound effects by "Fezz" Hoo Shu Yi, and voices by Matt Weise. Wiip can be downloaded here.
GAMBIT Highlights a Year of Development & Research: AudiOdyssey
This is part two of a multi-part series reflecting back on the games developed during the first year of the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab, a five-year research initiative created to address important challenges faced by the global digital game research community and industry. Today we focus on AudiOdyssey, one of many games developed during the summer internship program.
AudiOdyssey is a rhythm video game which stars Vinyl Scorcher, a DJ in a nightclub trying to get people to dance. By matching various rhythmic sequences, Vinyl adds different tracks to a song to get club goers moving. However, if the party gets too crazy, there's a chance Vinyl's table might get bumped, causing him to lose tracks and forcing him to resynch his music. A single-player PC game, the user can control the game either with the keyboard or with the Nintendo Wiimote.
So, what's the research the game is based on? Well, AudiOdyssey is a fun game designed for everyone to enjoy, regardless of their level of sight. What does that mean? A blind individual can play AudiOdyssey just as well as a sighted person, and vice versa; furthermore, if we accomplished our research goal, both groups should enjoy the game with a similar challenge level. This was the original goal of the project to create a game that both the sighted and non-sighted could play together and share a common gaming experience.
The game serves as the research for Eitan Glinert's Master's thesis, and Eitan is currently conducting game testing here at MIT to determine how effective it was in achieving its goals (if you are in the Boston area and want to help out with testing, drop him a line at glinert [at] mit [dot] edu.) This coming summer, a spiritual sequel to the game will expand on what was learned in the first version and improve on the weak areas. Most notably, the new game will likely have an online multiplayer element, so that people in remote locations with varying levels of eyesight will be able to play the game together.
AudiOdyssey was created by Eitan Glinert, Lonce Wyse, Dominic Chai, Bruce Chia, Paviter Singh, Mark Sullivan, Edwin Toh, Jim Willburger, Yeo Jingying, and contains original music by Guo Yuan. AudiOdyssey can be downloaded here.
GAMBIT Highlights a Year of Development & Research: Elementalyst
Summer is fast approaching at the GAMBIT MIT-Singapore Game Lab. In a little under two months the second class of GAMBIT summer interns will descend upon Boston to work with MIT faculty, students and staff in pushing the limits of video game research.
Expectations are high. A number of the games developed during GAMBIT's inaugural year have been extremely well received: Backflow was a 2008 Independent Games Festival finalist in two categories (Best Mobile Game and Innovation in Mobile Game Design) and AudiOdyssey was recently chosen to be featured as a postmortem at Gamasutra. The GAMBIT Singapore Lab is currently putting the finishing touches on Backflow and Wiip for their June 2008 release, and AudiOdyssey will undergo a major redesign this summer to prepare it for publication.
The past year has been a whirlwind of Scrum meetings, game development, testing and of course playing as many games as we can (we like to call it "research"). To help us remember it all, over the next few weeks we'll be highlighting some of the games developed at GAMBIT. Today we'll be looking at Elementalyst.
Elementalyst is a single player casual game modeled after games such as Lumines and Puzzle Fighter. Players build chains of each element while awaiting the arrival of the catalyst block. When the catalyst finally appears it induces a series of chain reactions between the three elements and helps clear the screen. The player's goal is to build larger and larger chains for more combos and more points.
As GAMBIT's first game development team, the main goal of the project was to expose students and staff to the process of game development in early 2007. Students were responsible for evaluating various software packages including GIMP, an open-source graphics editor similar to Photoshop, and Microsoft's XNA as well as test drive the Scrum Software Development Methodology, which has now been adopted by all of GAMBIT.
Working on Elementalyst has even persuaded some students to pursue game development as a career. "I love seeing all the different aspects that go into making a game and working alongside other students to produce something great," said Elementalyst programmer Jim Wilberger. "I could definitely see myself doing this for many years to come."
Despite the trials and tribulations of designing a video game for the first time, the majority of students on the Elementalyst team returned to GAMBIT over the summer or during the fall and spring terms. It just goes to show that we here at GAMBIT just can't get enough when it comes to games.
Elementalyst was created by Mark Grimm, Sharat Bhat, Jonathan Johnson, Jim Wilberger, Jamie Jones, Chris Casiano, Ben Decker, and contains original music by Jeremy Flores. Elementalyst can be downloaded here.
The Pros of Cons
Over the course of the last couple of years, I have been fortunate enough to attend a wide variety of different professional gatherings either as a speaker or simply as an attendee. This list includes SIGGRAPH's Sandbox Conference, the MIT-hosted Media in Transition Conference, FuturePlay in Toronto, South by Southwest (SXSW), the Bethesda Small Press Expo (SPX), the Game Developers Conference (GDC), WonderCon and, most recently, the New York Comic-Con. Most of these events are accompanied by several common denominators: some semi-hectic travel arrangements, some dubious hotels, a number of thoroughly excited and geeky conversations between equally excited and geeky people, and a not insignificant amount of griping about the nature of the event in question.
At almost every event, people complain that this year's isn't as good "as they used to be", that the event wasn't "what they expected it would be", or something along those lines. Of all of them, though, nowhere was that griping louder than at this year's GDC in San Francisco. Speakers and attendees alike groused about how the event was changing after the collapse of the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3); while GDC had always been solidly technical, academic and theoretical in nature, E3 had long been the agreed-upon blow-out demofest for marketing types and the public. If GDC was a library, E3 was an amusement park. Following E3's implosion due to ever-escalating costs and increasing ROI concerns, the marketing departments had turned their attention on GDC. The result of this was a huge amount of tension because of an increased confusion about what GDC was supposed to be.
If you look at the list of events I outlined in the first paragraph, almost all of them fall neatly into one of two categories: conference or convention. A conference is typically an event attended by people who largely share a similar profession, gathering in one place to talk shop. A convention is typically an event attended by people who largely share a similar hobby, gathering in one place to buy stuff they can't get elsewhere and geek out. At both types of events people go to hang out with 'their tribe', others who are passionate about the same things, and to listen to (and hopefully meet) people they admire or who do things that the attendees find incredibly cool. Both events are (or at least should be) fun, but they're often fun in different ways. To reuse a metaphor, conferences are libraries and conventions are amusement parks.
I attended GDC for the first time this year, and although this might not be a popular opinion among the old guard, I was grateful that there was some degree of convention involved in the conference. I like my conferences with a dash of convention -- I like it when I can come out of a great discussion about a particular topic and immediately buy some of the books, games, comics or what-have-you under discussion so I can dive right into them once I've returned to my hotel. This gleeful quasi-intellectual consumerism is improved even further when those things can be obtained at a 'trade show discount' of 20% or more. Throw in a cheap branded cloth attendee bag full of freebies and coupons and I'm a happy boy.
That said, even I had to agree that this year's GDC felt incredibly schizophrenic. The high point of this for me was the Microsoft keynote. I went in excited and hopeful that we'd hear some new announcements concerning indie development on the Xbox Live Arcade -- and, to be fair, my wish was granted. However, it was very much a case of "be careful what you ask for" -- while I was hoping for an in-depth demo of how independent developers could build, distribute, market and profit from games on Microsoft's XBLA, what I got was little more than a long, extended sales pitch. There was little to no hard data, no real how-to discussion, and absolutely zero discussion of the business model attached to this SHINY NEW PIECE OF AWESOME that Microsoft was trotting out and expecting the audience to fawn over. Instead of a technical document we got a press release -- or, worse, a total fluff piece. This was crystallized when the so-called 'keynote' ended with a flash of pyrotechnics and Cliffy B exploding onto the stage, chainsaw gun in hand, to announce Gears of War 2.
Now, again, I'm not saying there's no place for this kind of thing. Quite the contrary, in fact -- but that place is a convention, not a conference. With E3 gone, GDC is in danger of ceasing to be a conference and openly becoming a convention, which I think might be a horrible mistake. While at the New York Comic-Con, I found myself thinking that this was the kind of place where those types of announcements might have been more warmly received. Konami had a huge prescence on the trade show floor there, where they were demoing (among other things) their upcoming Hellboy game. The New York Comic-Con and the San Diego Comic-Con have both become increasingly less dependent upon comics and become more all-media geekfests with panels on comics, video games, feature films, television and so on. Even the less high-profile Wondercon, which was happening the exact same weekend as GDC and in the other half of the exact same convention center, had a notable showing of video game-related content. I found myself thinking then, much as I did later in New York, that the overlap in the two events' Venn diagram was huge -- but very few attendees of either conference was aware that the other was going on until they actually got there and noticed the swarm of OTHER nerds doing interesting things across the street.
This is, obviously, a huge missed opportunity. Instead of having developers grouse about Microsoft's convention-like "keynote", why not deliberately organize both events at the same time with a shared ticket option for those who want something from both worlds? Conventions usually offer panel discussions and lectures in classrooms in addition to their trade shows, as well as scheduled big announcements from the most high-profile corporations in attendance. When those are sales pitches, attendees accept that as what they are -- but they aren't being sold as keynote lectures. Similarly, attendees of GDC who had been expecting that kind of big pyrotechnic display would have been deeply disappointed in the excellent-but-dry-by-comparison keynote lecture on far-flung futurism by Dr. Raymond Kurzweil.
GDC is currently trying to court two very different audiences, which can certainly be done successfully through a clearer terminology and a clearer marketing strategy. By delineating which parts are conference and which parts are convention, GDC (and the Comic-Cons, for that matter) can expand their audiences and capitalize on the increased amount of cross-interest between these different-but-similar entertainment industries. The key is simply remembering what parts are libraries and what parts are amusement parks.
Bottom line: no one is happy when someone tries to give a lecture on a roller coaster.
Jesper Juul giving keynote at Game Philosophy Conference
GAMBIT's Jesper Juul is giving a keynote at the Philosophy of Computer Games conference in Potsdam, May 8-10.
Talk title: Who Made the Magic Circle? Seeking the Solvable Part of the Game-Player Problem.
Abstract: If the early days of game studies concerned the issue of games and stories, recent discussions appear to be focused on the issue of games and players. This is a discussion of methods and of the object of study: Should we discuss players or should we discuss games? There are two possible perspectives on this: The common "segregationist" perspective implies that games are structures separate from players, structures that players can subsequently subvert. In this talk, I will make the case for an alternative "integrationist" perspective wherein games are chosen and upheld by players, and where players will happily create formal rule systems and boundaries around the playing activity.
I will argue that the question of games and players must therefore be decomposed into a set of smaller problems, each of which must be answered with different methods.