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About the Archives

This page contains all entries posted to GAMBIT in February 2009. They are listed from oldest to newest.

January 2009 is the previous archive.

March 2009 is the next archive.

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.

Announcing Tipping Point!
Tipping Point
GAMBIT is proud to introduce our first new game of 2009, now freely available for downloading: Tipping Point!

Tipping Point is unique among our games for several reasons. First, this game has our lowest set of system requirements so far: paper, a color printer, scissors and tape. (Or glue. We're not picky.) Although we frequently develop paper prototypes for our video games as they're being developed, Tipping Point is the first board game that we've made publicly available.

Second, this game represents our first (but definitely not our last) collaboration with the MIT Sloan School of Management. Tipping Point was developed over the MIT Independent Activities Period in January by Sara Verrilli (Product Owner, Documentation), Jason Begy (Production, Design, Documentation), Dustin Katzin (Design), Mike Rapa (Design, Art) and Jennifer Swann (Design) based on a challenge posed to us by our friends over at Sloan: how do you make a board game that represents the dynamics of project management?

Tipping Point

The result is a cooperative puzzle game for up to four players. Players assume the roles of Project Managers, and must work together to complete projects before they go too far past their deadline. The game is won by completing a set number of projects without letting any project fail.

The game is designed to be both a fun game and a useful training tool, teaching players how to manage multiple projects while emphasizing the importance of long-term planning. Projects are completed through a mix of Concept and Production work. "Concept Work" represents the planning and research done in the early phases of a project, while "Production Work" represents implementing the project, such as building a product. Each turn the players decide which project to work on and which type of work to be done. There must be a balance between Concept work and Production work: Production work is more useful in the short term, but Concept work is more useful in the long term.

Over the course of the game players can see how their previous choices affect the current state of the game, which helps them understand the benefits of long-term planning. Concept work done on early projects will have a positive impact on later projects, making them easier to manage. Production work makes it easier to finish a project immediately, but players who spend too much time on Production work will soon find their later projects uncontrollable.

Tipping Point

Tipping Point also demonstrates the problem of letting projects continue for too long. If they are not completed early on, projects will begin to negatively impact each other, creating a downward spiral that is difficult to reverse. The "Tipping Point" is the start of this spiral. If they want to succeed the players must work together to prevent the game from reaching this point.

The game is an engaging puzzle that requires players to think long-term and work together. If anyone's project fails, everyone loses: players win or lose as a team, and many decisions in the game must be made by consensus. As the game progresses the number of simultaneous projects increases, forcing players to think strategically about when to complete and when to begin new projects. A hasty decision can quickly change several small projects into an enormous, convoluted amalgamation that is almost impossible to manage.

While fun on its own, Tipping Point is an excellent team builder and project management training tool. It is highly recommended for any organization where teamwork and long-term planning are core values.

Tipping Point

Tipping Point is now available at – download it, grab some art supplies and some friends, give it a shot and let us know what you think!

Postmortem: Showtime
Want a behind-the-scenes look into the development of our "IGF Grand Prize finalist and XNA Community Games standout" game CarneyVale: Showtime? That's just what programmer Bruce Chia and artist Desmond Wong provide in a featured postmortem article at Gamasutra that just went live.

Highlights of the piece include detailed lists of what went right and what went wrong during the game's development, as well as an in-depth look into... The evils of HD?

When we were building the game, we made sure that it looked great and ran properly on our development machines, not realizing how much influence that would have on our production. Not planning for wide distribution of our game made it much less accessible to other languages, regions and screen setups.

Our team had an HDTV in our lab that we used for most of our initial prototypes, and all of our computers were capable of rendering at high resolutions.

This led us to work under the incorrect assumption that we were developing the game only for HD displays, and we lacked the foresight to support lower-resolution televisions.

In our zeal, we created so many assets that when we finally realized we should cater to lower resolutions, downsizing those assets was an insurmountable task.

For example, we had many lines of text that we'd rendered as image files with fancy effects. Although the Xbox Live Community Games reviewers did not reject our submission for this reason, many of them did complain that words were cut off and that some text was too small to read.

This was especially evident on CRT television screens that were less than 20" in size. However, due to time constraints and the need to ship, we had to push the title to Xbox Live Community Games without catering to lower-resolution television sets.

D'oh! Check out the full postmortem for this and other stories.

The Pleasures of Old School Resident Evil - Sherry Birkin


Resident Evil 2 actually has some of the best voice acting in the series. This is, of course, not saying much, since Resident Evil has long been famous for horrid, hilarious acting. But I think it's worth pointing out that there are many subtle layers of badness when it comes to acting, and RE2 at times is so significantly better than RE1 (and, if you ask me, many RE games that followed) it comes as a shock.

The writing is still hammy, but the voice actors do a better job of making it feel believable. I am thinking mostly of Sherry here, the lost little girl you are supposed to protect in Claire's scenario. She sounds more like a real little girl than almost any other character I can think of in a localized Japanese video game. I dunno who they got to voice her, but whomever she is she's really good. Sherry sounds entirely like a natural, native English-speaking 11-year-old. This may not seem like an achievement, but when you compare her to the often grating attempts by English-speaking voice actors to approximate Japanese archetypes she's a refreshing contrast. Steve Burnside in Resident Evil: Code Veronica, for example, doesn't sound remotely like a real English-speaking teenager. He sounds like he's being goaded by a Japanese voice director to match the inflections of a Japanese archetypal teenager. There's not a shred of this sort of arch phoniness in Sherry, which makes her a surprisingly compelling character.

I played RE2 so long ago (back in 1998) I'd forgotten all the subtle touches that make Sherry and Claire's relationship endearing. Sherry has some very simple A.I. that, from the perspective of 2009, at times reminds one of Yorda in Ico. She runs a little slower than Claire, so that if you run for too long Sherry will be left behind. This often happens without you realizing it, not becoming clear until you try to exit a room causing Claire to say "I can't leave Sherry behind". When you go find her, she's always sitting by herself in a corner, arms hugging her legs, staring at the ground. When you get near her, Claire's head will automatically turn to look at Sherry, and Sherry's head will automatically turn to look at Claire. After a few moments of this connection, Sherry gets up and follows again. All the time Sherry is looking up at Claire as she walks, even when Claire is fighting zombies. When nothing is happening, and both characters are standing still, they will just look at each other. If you stand still long enough Sherry will actually run to Claire and hold her hand. I like the economy of this animation, since Claire doesn't change position at all--it is simply Sherry reaching up and touching Claire's hand. She then just stands there, staring up at Claire, until you move again. Sherry will even hold Claire's hand if there's a gun in it, which seems incredibly cute to me, like she's so desperate for contact she'll wiggle her hand in between the gun handle and Claire's palm if she has to.

Claire-Sherry2.png Claire-Sherry1.png

This is all ridiculously simple. Sherry's behavior is not some massive feature; just a small detail. But it's a wonderful detail that does quite a lot to suggest a relationship between two characters. This, combined with surprisingly good voice acting, makes the experience of playing Claire in RE2 one of the better examples of an emotionally compelling sidekick I can think of, at least in the game's I've played. One imagines this is what a good game based on the Ripley/Newt relationship in Aliens would be like. I especially like how the behavior suggests particular psychology. Sherry is a neglected, introverted child. You get the feeling (through various story cut-scenes) that her parents don't care about her much. The way she simply "gives up" when Claire gets too far ahead indicates this. She's used to being left behind, and she deals with it simply by shutting down. This makes one feel pretty awful for leaving her behind, even though it has no adverse effect on gameplay. It makes going back to find her not just a simple gameplay hurdle but an act of proving to her that you're not like her parents.

Sherry.png Claire-Sherry3.png

All this makes me wonder why there aren't more children as sidekicks in video games. Most of the other characters I can think of that function in this way--as sidekicks you have to protect--are grown women being protected by men. Although many of these games are good, they always have to explain away the annoying gender politics through some complex reasoning, like Yorda in Ico being mute or Emma in Metal Gear Solid 2 being drugged. But when you have an adult protecting a small child the relationship feels more natural. Of course you'd have to watch a kid at all times; of course they'd become paralyzed with fear when cornered; of course they'd lag behind; of course they'd become emotionally attached to you. They're a kid.

A lot of the believability problems of a video game protector/protectee relationship are solved (or, at least, given a more compelling explanatory framework) by simply making the relationship one between an adult and a child. That is, after all, the inescapable subtext of any such protector/protectee relationship: that you are an adult and they are a child. Ico, for example, forces you to treat Yorda like a child, which makes it necessary to explain why she would act like one. The explanations can range from the rational ("She's been abused by her mother.") to the offensive ("She's a woman.") The nice thing about RE2 is that it simply avoids this by making the player character a confident, focused adult woman and the sidekick a little girl who, quite believably, is scared shitless by zombies and needs help.


In early January, experiencing the kind of doldrums that readers of an academic blog about video game research are no doubt quite familiar with, I picked up a little expansion to that one game. It took me a while to hit the new level cap of 80. After a few lucky runs, I was in a pretty good spot, and felt up to tackling some of of the end-game content. Poking around a friendly chat channel for a group, I signed up to run a dungeon I’d been through once before, only to be told I was undergeared and unknown, and was bounced from the group. A week later, I managed to connive my way back into the group to tackle a set of the toughest dungeons in the game. By the end of our run, I had managed to upgrade almost all of my equipment, including snagging some of the best gear available for Shamans who specialize in Restoration. This should make my life easier: I’ve got status, I can clear the hardest stuff in the game, right?

The Pleasures of Old School Resident Evil - Slow Zombies

It's funny that, a few years ago, I passionately hated the Resident Evil formula so much I couldn't imagine ever liking it again. I loved RE back in the day, but by the time 2005 rolled around I'd had it with the fixed camera angles, the clunky tank controls, the endless locked doors, the ridiculous backtracking, and the unbelievable puzzles. This is the big reason I welcomed Resident Evil 4's changes (sans the moronic story) with open arms and vowed I'd never look back. Funny how you never appreciate some things until they're gone.


Cornered in Resident Evil 2

While RE4's more action-based approach revitalized the series and introduced new zombie film-inspired dynamics into the gameplay, it also opened the door for RE to become far more of a generic action game. Playing Resident Evil 1 and 2 again recently has made it clear to me just how slow, methodical, and tense survival horror once was. It's not that RE4 isn't suspenseful, but the old RE's embody an entirely different sort of suspense, one that's more subtle. In certain ways the earlier RE's better embody the George Romero spirit simply by being so contained. This seems counter intuitive, since Romero's apocalyptic visions of average people facing horrific odds seem more suited to bigger virtual environments with more complex dynamics. In a sense this is true, but consider for a moment how the earlier RE games made such small goals feel so big. Getting from the second floor of a single building to the first floor exit is a monolithic undertaking in Resident Evil 1, one that constitutes a major strategic challenge. Doing something as mundane as run down a single hallway or cross a single room requires a level of planning that adrenaline-fests like RE4 are simply not interested in offering. They've abandoned this sort of slow-burning tension along with the "slow" zombies of yesteryear. While I am not down on "slow zombies" as much as Simon Pegg is, I do agree that fast-moving zombies (or parasite-infected people, or whatever they are now) does inherently alter the feeling, dynamics, and meaning of a zombie scenario, whether it be a game or film. In the case of games it seems to translate into the gameplay genre shifting more towards the mainstream, overlapping heavily with the first-person and third-person shooter genres to the point that the two become almost indistinguishable.


Ready to rock in Resident Evil 4

As Resident Evil 5 rapidly approaches, I am bracing myself for a game that feels significantly more like a Hollywood action film than a low-budget horror film. Resident Evil has always had some elements of Hollywood action, ever since RE1 jettisoned its brooding atmosphere at the eleventh hour in favor of a big guns, big explosions finale. Yet Resident Evil always had at least one foot firmly in Romeroland. I am only now realizing how many of its "outdated" conventions helped effectively create that feeling.

Picopoke Named IGF Mobile "Next Great Mobile Game" Finalist
We're proud to announce that our Summer 2008 prototype game Picopoke has been named an IGF Mobile 'Next Great Mobile Game' Finalist! Here's the IGF's official press release:
The 2009 Independent Games Festival Mobile, an event that celebrates innovation in games for handheld devices, including mobile phones, Nintendo DS, PlayStation Portable (PSP), iPhone and iPod touch, has named the finalists for the competition's "Next Great Mobile Game" category, presented by the IGF Mobile's Platinum and Founding Sponsor NVIDIA. Oriented towards the entries that offer truly unique and groundbreaking mobile gaming concepts in at least prototype form, finalists will be asked to give a presentation and demonstration of their concept and game during the IGF Mobile ceremony held during the Game Developers Conference Mobile conference on March 24, with the winner to be voted on by the audience.

Finalists for this year's competition include FastFoot Challenge, a multiplayer GPS action game where play takes place as a real world chase supported by mobile phones, Picopoke, an interpretive photo game integrated with Facebook that asks players to take photos to beat challenges, and Rhythm of War, a unique rhythm action title for Sony's PSP.

This year's IGF Mobile competition is supported by Platinum and Founding Sponsor NVIDIA - which is awarding "The Next Great Mobile Game" at this year's awards, with finalists to be revealed soon, as well as Gold Sponsor and Best iPhone Game prize sponsor ngmoco.

The full list of finalists for the 2009 IGF Mobile "Next Great Mobile Game" competition are:

Depict (VillaVanilla) - iPhone
FastFoot Challenge (Urban Team) - J2ME
Picopoke (Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab) - Photo/Internet-capable Mobile Handsets
Rhythm of War (SME Dynamic Systems Ltd) - Sony PSP
Reflection (Team Reflection - University of Southern California) - Nintendo DS

As well as receiving $2,000 of the IGF Mobile's $30,000 prize pool, the winner of the IGF Mobile's "Next Great Mobile Game" will be given a spot in the IGF Mobile's pavilion (adjoining the main IGF Pavilion) in which to demonstrate a playable version of their game, alongside the finalists of the main IGF Mobile competition. The pavilion is to be at the Game Developers Conference 2009 and is set to take place at the Moscone Center in San Francisco from March 23rd to 27th.

Picopoke was created by Kevin Driscoll (Product Owner), Yee Kar Kin (Scrummaster), Clara Rhee (Designer), Ang Yi Xin (Artist), Anindita Ningtyas (Artist), Munir Bin Hussin (Programmer), Pham Ngoc Hoang Viet (Programmer), Ong Yit Sin (QA Lead), Erik Sahlström (Audio Designer) and Pradashini Subramaniam (Additional Audio). Way to go, folks!

The Game of History

Recently I was at a gathering with some colleagues from around the lab. During the course of the evening the discussion turned to some of the more obscure game consoles that appeared in the early to mid 90's. At one point I happened to mention owning a Nintendo Virtual Boy and all but two of the games released in the US (still need Jack Brothers and Waterworld; well, maybe "need" is too strong a word). The response was largely negative: why would anyone pay good money for bad games and bad headaches?


Red Alarm on the Virtual Boy

Certainly a valid question, but when I told the story of a time in summer 2004 when I passed on the chance to buy a Philips CD-i and a bunch of games (including the three Zelda atrocities), there was disappointment, as though the CD-i were somehow less awful than the Virtual Boy. For me, these reactions highlight a frequent conundrum. I love going to independent game shops to see what they have lying around. There is always a certain thrill associated with finding something rare, be it a Wonderswan color or a sealed 3DO. However, the fact that video games are consumer products results in a strange situation where unpopular products become rare. This happens when a system lacks good games, so few people buy it, and hence few are manufactured. In video games, "rare" items can be really good or really bad. So there is this ongoing question of whether an uncommon, albeit crappy, find is worth the money. After all the same money could just as well go towards something I know to be quality. But at the same time there is an almost ethical concern as well.

The problem with video games, especially console games, is their ephemeral nature. Games only become obsolete, but hardware wears out with use, rendering associated games unplayable. Finding uncommon hardware for sale thus carries a sense of gravity: I was fortunate to find this item, and while it may not be fun to play it needs to be preserved (using eBay here is no fun). In a sense, this is part of my heritage, and should go to someone who will appreciate it. Of course, the idea of preserving game history is a paradox: games are meant to be played, but that Jaguar will only last so long before something fails, and does it not also deserve preservation?

If games are your sole concern there is always emulation. Of course emulators are a hot-button topic, and there is a lot to be said. First and foremost I appreciate Nintendo's efforts with the Wii's Virtual Console. This is an excellent way to preserve gaming history, and while there are many titles lacking they are moving in the right direction. Also notable is Classic99, which emulates the TI 99/4a home computer and is apparently distributed under license from Texas Instruments. It even comes with a few games to get you started. While I wish this was something more companies would do as a service to the community, Nintendo has shown that there can still be a market for these games, and any reluctance to release "official" emulators on their part is completely understandable.


The TI 99/4a Home Computer

For the purist, however, emulation is hardly an option, and not just because emulators are rarely completely accurate. While the success of a given platform has at least something to do with the quality of games available, part of the overall experience comes from the hardware itself. Sure the Dreamcast had plenty of great games, but I will always associate those games with the nagging sense that no human being designed the controller. Similarly, the unreliability of the old NES makes for lots of good stories. A good friend of mine is a big fan of Marble Madness, but his NES can barely function long enough for him to finish the game before the hardware crashes. Thus it is both a test of his skill and a race against the console itself. Towards the end the sprites transform into random characters, signaling the imminent crash. It really improves the game.

There is something to be said for playing games on the hardware they were meant for, to have the experience as originally intended. To do otherwise is like watching a cell phone bootleg of a movie: you know what generally happened, but the experience is nothing like being in the theater on opening night. Ultimately I regret not purchasing the CD-i, even though that money went to much better games. A few weeks later I went back to the store but the system was gone, and prices for one now are prohibitively expensive. If you can find one.

Boston Game Jam Games at Post Mortem

A quick reminder to everyone here in the Boston area: tonight's Boston Post Mortem will feature the games from the Boston session of the 2009 Global Game Jam, which GAMBIT hosted here at our lab. Here's the description of the event from the official announcement:

Instead of a single speaker, we're going to be doing a showcase and post mortem of the games created last weekend at the Boston site of the Global Game Jam. For those of you who don't know, the GGJ was organized by the IGDA as a game jam happening simultaneously around the world, with over 1600 participants creating over 300+ games in 48 hours. Our Boston site was hosted by the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab. All 300 games are on the official website, but you might particularly want to check out the six games that were made in Boston. They're all open-source, too, so feel free to take a crack at the code! Hope to see you there!

Post Mortem will go down tonight at 7pm at the Skellig in Waltham. For directions, click here.

Podcast of Pearce Lecture Now Available

In case you missed it, a podcast of last week's lecture by Georgia Tech's Dr. Celia Pearce is now available at the Comparative Media Studies website. The synopsis of the lecture is as follows:

This talk by Celia Pearce, Assistant Professor of Digital Media at Georgia Tech and Director and the Emergent Game Group and Experimental Game Lab, explored the connection of identity to virtual place, referencing in particular anthropology, humanist and socio-geography and Internet studies to look at the construction and performance of "fictive ethnicity" tied to a specific, though virtual and fictional, locality. To illustrate, Pearce used the example of the "Uru Diaspora," a game community from the defunct massively multiplayer game Uru: Ages Beyond Myst (based on the Myst series), which emigrated into other games and virtual worlds, adopting the collective fictive ethnicity of "Uru Refugees," and referring to Uru as their "homeland."

A few pictures from Dr. Pearce's lecture are now available in our Flickr pool (one, two, three, four). For more podcasts from the CMS Colloquium Lecture Series (including other GAMBIT guests such as Michael Mateas and Denis Dyack, check out subscribable RSS feed is available at or via iTunes. To subscribe to the CMS podcast e-mail notification list, click here.

Showtime a Unique Gale of Fresh Air
Slinky with balloons
CarneyVale: Showtime is making waves in the press and around the Internet! Our latest glowing review comes from Brad Gallaway at, who calls Showtime "interesting, exciting, finely tuned, and most of all quite unique".

Gallaway's review begins:

A perfect example of the old adage that good things come in small packages, the unassuming, overlooked, practically invisible CarneyVale Showtime from the Gambit Game Lab is one of last year's best titles that nobody played. Located in the user-created Community Games section of the new Xbox 360 dashboard, there's not really anything to distinguish CarneyVale from the dozens of uninspired games tucked away there--but only after a minute or two of play, it's clear to see that it stands head and shoulders above the rest.

Although initial impressions might be deceiving, CarneyVale Showtime is in fact, an extremely elegant and clever design that requires a good degree of hand-eye coordination. Its challenge is nicely complemented by the absolutely spot-on controls and impeccable level of polish present everywhere throughout the game.

Be sure to jump over and read the whole thing, but the review's ending is incredibly flattering. "Relatively simple, tactile games like CarneyVale Showtime are few and far between these days, and ones as well-done as this number even fewer," Gallaway writes. "It may be found in the amateur section, but CarneyVale Showtime is a consummate professional."

As revealed at Metacritic, Gallaway gives Showtime a 9 out of 10 (!), which is the same as Jim Sterling recently gave the game in a review at Destructoid (!!!). As Sterling begins his glowing review:

When I first started challenging Community Games developers to submit their work for review on Destructoid, I had hoped that some real gems would come out of the woodwork and prove their worth. I had not, however, expected CarneyVale Showtime.

At the risk of spoiling the whole review before you even read it, let me say that if you're at all interested in the potential of XNA games, then you really, really, really need to check this one out. A breath of fresh air? This is more like a gale of the stuff.

Sterling goes on to describe Showtime as "inventive, addictive, charming and very clever, with deceptively simple gameplay that soon gives way to something far more complex and fiendish". (Mwa ha ha.) "If there were any justice, this game would be expanded and end up on the Xbox Live Arcade," he writes. "As it stands, however, CarneyVale is an absolute steal for 400 Microsoft Points."

To say that we're proud of Showtime is an understatement, but it's Gallaway's description of it as "overlooked" and "practically invisible" that we're out to fix. If you haven't tried Showtime yet, what are you waiting for? If you have, tell your friends! Tell your friends' friends! Or jump onto and tell the world what you think! (Unless, of course, you didn't like it - in which case we humbly suggest that you try playing something else.)

Henry Jenkins Meets Michael Nitsche

Late last month, GAMBIT's co-PI Henry Jenkins was kind enough to allow me to guest-star over at his blog Confessions of an Aca-Fan and share with his readers my interview with CarneyVale's artist Desmond Wong. Today we'd like to invite Henry into our blog to share his interview with Georgia Tech's Michael Nitsche. Take it away, Henry!

What Architecture and Urban Planning Can Tell Us About Games: An Interview with Georgia Tech's Michael Nitsche

For a while there, it looked like the debate between the ludologists (who focus on game play mechanics) and the narratologists (who focus on storytelling) was going to define the range of perspectives in games studies. As someone who was falsely labeled a narratologist for a bit, I found this model of the field constraining and distorting. Now, of course, we've seen an explosion of different perspectives in the academic study of computer and video games. One of the most promising approaches emphasizes the spatial dimensions of game design, a topic which was, in fact, the real focus of my own early writing on games (and not coincidentally a recurring focus of the work of Espen Aardseth, a card-carrying Ludologist), suggesting that space is not only the final frontier but also the common ground of many of the first generation of game scholars.

Michael Nitsche, a games researcher at the Georgia Institute of Technology (better known as Georgia Tech), has written a significant new book, Video Game Spaces: Image, Play, and Structure in 3D Worlds (MIT Press, 2008) which sums up what we can learn about games by examining them as spatial systems. His writing is informed not only by work in games studies but also from media studies, performance studies, urban planning and architecture. As he discusses in the interview below, this work has been informed by his work with the Digital World and Image Group at Georgia Tech.

I had a chance to visit Nitsche and his colleagues down in Atlanta late last fall and came away tremendously impressed by the spirit of collaboration and exploration which exists within that particular academic community. The Georgia Tech folks are doing cutting edge work across many different research areas. I am lucky enough to have Michael's colleague, Ceila Pierce, presenting the opening colloquium this term, sharing her work on the construction of fictional ethnic identities within multiplayer game worlds.

Here and next time, Nitsche shares some thoughts about the theoretical stakes of thinking about games space.

You come to this book both as a game designer and as a game theorist. How have the two perspectives informed each other here? To what degree do you see your design work as a mode of experimentation with the basic building blocks of games as a medium? Can you describe for us some of the projects you've worked? How does work with games done in research centers differ from the kind of work which occurs within commercial games companies? What value do you think university-based game research brings to the evolution of games as a medium?

Most examples in the book are drawn from commercial video games but it does include a wide range of research projects, too - including some of my own practical experiments. We need these experimental game projects to fill in the gaps left by commercial titles.

Commercial video games have to make money and they often have to be streamlined and optimized to reach that target - university-based games research projects have all kinds of limitations but they thankfully do not have to sell. This allows us to explore some of the more complicated areas that commercial games have to avoid to stay afloat.
My own work has always been a mixture of theory and practice but I have to admit that I somehow lack a single direction in the experiments I have conducted. I have worked on educational virtual environments, procedural game spaces, virtual and mixed media performance spaces, augmented reality prototypes, and these days I start to experiment with location-based handheld applications. In my case these experiments are truly explorative. They start off with a relatively simple question and snowball into more and more challenging test beds. While a commercial game production has to streamline the design at that point and focus on the core, research projects remain free to explore. I like that - a lot.

At Georgia Tech we are used to testing theory and analysis in such an experimental set up. So, shortly after I joined the faculty here, I started the Digital World & Image Group. One of our first major projects was Charbitat, an experimental game that creates a 3D world around the virtual player depending on how you play the game. First, we focused on the question of procedural space generation and how to design for these new and dynamic worlds. But once we had the functional prototype up and running, we moved on to look into procedural quest generation, dynamic camera control and patterns to support spatial navigation in infinite worlds - all based on the original game prototype. Any commercial developer would have cut this additional research, which is why this kind of gradual experimental discovery is only possible in a non-commercial environment. This certainly does not mean that academics should tell developers how to create their games, but it shows that research projects can offer additional information because they are free to explore venues that are locked off by deadlines and budgets in commercial production.

Other areas are not covered by commercial games, yet. For example, I am very interested in game worlds as performance spaces where players do not play to achieve certain high scores but instead to express something effectively. Consequently, some of my projects deal with virtual puppetry or augmented reality performance spaces.

I also have done quite a lot of work in machinima. The industry might recognizes the promise in these areas but it is simply not clear how these ideas might work out in a viable single application. So here the university-based research project can break completely new ground.

Many accounts of game theory have emphasized the tension between ludological approaches, which focus on game play mechanics, and narratological approaches, which focus on story telling. Does a focus on game spaces give us a different way of thinking about the relations between these two approaches?

I believe it does. Space is certainly not the single answer to all of our problems but it surely predates play as well as narrative. We learn how to deal with space before we start to tell stories or play games. If we translate this into video games, space becomes a higher category, one that can include narrative qualities as well as ludic ones.

I started to look into expressive 3D game spaces around 1999, when I began my studies at the University of Cambridge's Department of Architecture. This was just around the time the debate about narratology and ludology heated up. We did a lot of work with video but I felt somewhat shielded from the divide because even in the darkest controversies nobody ever argued against the importance of space in games. From where I was standing, you had to ask whether there is really a substantial divide at all between ludology and narratology. For me, both become part of how we deal with spaces and are not opposites but complementary to each other.

In the book I talk about Story Maps, a form of imaginary map that we form in our mind as we play our way through a virtual environment. These maps are shaped by what we do in the game world as well as how the action it told through various forms of presentation in sound and image. Sure, there is a strong narrative element in these maps but they can only be created when the game is played. So I could never really fully see the divide because my work seemed to be right in the middle of this discussion without conflicting with either.

A key goal throughout the book has been to map the many different devices that shape the player's perception and experience of games space. What value is such a catalog to the game designer? What do you see as some of the under-developed opportunities in the creation of expressive game spaces?

Game Studies has covered a lot of ground and opened up a wide range of approaches, which is good. What I suggest is a combination of different fields. That is why the book references various disciplines from architecture to film, to drama and literature studies.

Game designers very often use these and other references already as they collect ideas and inspirations. They do this often intuitively and this book might help to stimulate this messy process and provide an additional perspective.

Any designer worth their salt is aware of the fundamental role of a video game such as Mario 64 for the way we design games today; this book offers an additional view at some details regarding these innovations specifically for 3D game worlds. It does not suggest a single solution or a unique missed opportunity but instead discusses a range of available options by looking at the underlying basics.

For example, the whole argument of the book is built on the idea that game worlds are not simply polygon masses arranged in a certain way in the engine. Instead, we should look into different layers where game spaces come to life. These include the play space in the living room of the player, as well as the fictional and mediated spaces generated by the presentation and the imagination of the player. The rule-based level is only one of five layers for game space analysis. The task, then, is to find the connections between the different layers. New interfaces such as the Wii remote or webcams are good examples for these connections. They put much more emphasis on the world in front of the screen. But what can we make of this expansion into the physical space? Among other things, the book invites us to think about ways these connections into the living room can be made more effectively.

Throughout the book, you draw heavily on ideas from architecture and urban planning. What do these fields have to contribute to games studies?

There are some obvious parallels, such as the relevance of urban planning for the design of free-roaming game worlds or the way architectural styles are copied in video games. However, I would argue that we have to look a bit deeper to identify more fundamental parallels.

One example for a more direct connection is the way we read large-scale environments no matter whether it is a real world like my hometown or a virtual one like an online world. We gradually form a cognitive map based on certain key features and navigate through the world based on this map. Architectural theorists like Alexander or Lynch have done extremely valuable work in precisely this area and a range of research projects has shown that the same ideas apply to virtual environments.

However, games offer different means to accentuate a players' development of a cognitive map. Designers have full control over the space and the possible actions in it and use it to dramatize the experience. That is why we also have to take theatrical spaces into account.

Most virtual worlds are designed not for a "live-like" experience but for overly dramatic ones. These game worlds would fall short if they would provide "only" realistically functioning virtual cities. Instead, they have to deliver virtual stages, full or extraordinary events and opportunities that are not available in real world designs. That is why we have to add these dramatic functions to the architectural ones and combine dramatic moments with cognitive maps.

Likewise, architecture is very helpful in the discussion of specific spatial structures, such as paths, arenas, or labyrinths. They clearly reflect and reference existent architectural structures but we have to add the game specific elements that usually enhance their dramatic impact. The labyrinths of Doom or Silent Hill are not just navigable virtual architectures but the actively put the player into a highly engaging dramatic situation.

The video game world tells the player where she is projecting her actions. It positions the player via spatial means and uses references to architecture and urban planning. At the same time, it is a dramatic positioning. Players do not enter a game world as a neutral observer or visiting tourists but as cops staged in the middle of a gang war, a superhero with the power to destroy or rescue Metropolis, a lost soul that only tries to escape and survive.

These options are embedded in the game world's architecture, its presentation, and its functionality. Urban planning, architecture and performance studies help us to balance and connect these features better.

You also suggest that the design of games space has been heavily influenced by our shared understanding of cinematic conventions. Which aspects of film form exert an influence on the design of game worlds?

Video games, film, and television are all part of the moving image media family. They share many aspects, differ in many others and continuously add to each other's vocabulary through their shared origins. There are at least two connections that we have to take into account when we discuss game spaces and their visual representation. On the one hand, a large number of games try to remediate cinematic visuals. There is no reason for a lens flare effect in Unreal Tournament because there are not physical optics involved. But the programmer included it. Neither is there any technical reason for suddenly increasing grainy imagery in sections of Fatal Frame. But the images are altered nevertheless. These are rendering effects applied to the game world in order to recreate cinematic visual effects and to achieve distinct dramatic impacts.

Most of the time, we have to read and understand a game world to interact meaningfully with it. That is why visualization is a very powerful form of expression in digital games and not necessarily subordinate to interactivity. Cinematic traditions are built into these games to direct our reading of the world. Because designers constantly develop new visual expressions for their games, we cannot pinpoint a single cinematic reference point for video games. The main visual traditions of 3D game cinematography (following camera, overhead view, first-person point of view and pre-defined viewing frames) have all connections to existent cinematic traditions but they have developed their own specifics over time.

The interactive following camera, for example, changes the way that the main character is visually situated in the game world and often becomes not only a visual but also a action controlling device when the hero is programmed to always run in the direction the player points the camera. Equally important is the question of montage of different viewpoints in video games. Film has developed multiple techniques of montage and games seem to gradually follow with some own concepts that are organized around their interactivity.

In many 3D games players not only control the virtual hero but have also taken on the role of virtual cameramen and editors. Maybe the most surprising fact is how seamlessly audience can accept this responsibility. The camera work in the newer Prince of Persia titles is highly developed and might be influenced by the player in the midst of equally complex game play situations. Nevertheless, players seem to readily adapt to that task. Nowadays, a player not only accepts the role of the virtual hero but also that of the "man with the movie camera." And this transition happened extremely smoothly overall. Maybe because of our familiarity with cinematic techniques.

This points to the second main connection between games and film: players have developed certain expectations towards the moving image. We have been educated by television conventions and cinematic visual storytelling and look at game through this expectation.

This allows players to understand the elegant intro sequences of the Half-Life games as descendents of the classic long opening shots that we have seen in Altman's The Player or Welles' Touch of Evil. Players bring this kind of media literacy to the game and can read it through their proficiency in film and TV visual storytelling. So we expect games to work a bit like movies because film and TV are essential sources of our visual literacy.

This is a two-way street, of course, and with the growing role of games as media for socialization the influences starts to shift. We can see that games start to educate our visual expectations and drive shots in television and cinema productions. So instead of a single influence I would argue for a growing shared ground that is based on the tradition of the moving image.

As you note, game designers rely on a range of spatial metaphors to discuss
their craft -- drawing parallels between games and gardens, sand boxes,
amusement parks, labyrinths, mazes, and arenas or talking about games as being
on "rails" or "tracks." Which of these analogies are most productive for
thinking about games space? Which do you think are confusing or misleading?

The book does not directly pick up the discussion of games as gardens or sand boxes - not because these metaphors are misleading but mainly because to me it seemed that a lot of detail is lost in such an approach. These are very useful approaches and often well applied in other works but a bit too large for the detailed analysis I had in mind. In my case, I tried to look into more precise spatial subcategories - like the path, the arena, or the labyrinth.

So instead of discussing the overall summary of a virtual space, which indeed might work and feel like a virtual garden, the focus is on details that might evoke this impression. I call these details evocative narrative elements and they work like spatialized hooks that affect the way the player experiences the game universe. They support the player to make sense of the virtual world and the situations in it and offers opportunities to connect and contextualize the events in relationship to each other. Finding a item important to the player, defeating an opponent or saving a friendly character, discovering the value of a certain item and overcoming threshold - all these can be evocative narrative elements that are situated in the game world.

However, how the player truly interconnects these hooks is up to her. Evocative narrative elements can add up to a fuller picture of a garden of a sandbox-like world, but in the end this depends very much on the player.

That is why I suggest a different metaphor in the end of the book, namely that of the kitchen. The kitchen caters for the growing role of players in the formation and re-usage of game environments. Following established recipes or gradually experimenting with new ones might be translated in the players' actions in innovative titles from Spore to Little Big Planet to Second Life or MetaPlace. And getting all the set up right might just about decide the fate of worlds like Sony's Home.

Michael Nitsche is an Assistant Professor at the School of Literature, Communication,
and Culture at the Georgia Institute of Technology where he teaches courses on virtual
environments and digital moving images. Michael heads the Digital World and Image Group, which works the design, use, and production of virtual spaces, Machinima, and the borderlines between games, film, and performance. His work combines theoretical analysis and practical experiments and his collaborations include work with the National Film and Television School London, Sony Computer Entertainment Europe, Turner Broadcasting, Alcatel Lucent, and others. He is author of Video Game Spaces: Image, Play, and Structure in 3D Worlds (MIT Press, 2008), and has published on Game Studies, virtual worlds, digital performance, games and film, and machinima in numerous publications. In a former life he was co-author for a commercial videogame, professional Improv actor, and dramaturgist.

(This interview originally appeared at Henry Jenkins' blog Confessions of an Aca-Fan on February 6, 2009.)

Now guest-starring Celia Pearce!

One of the awesome things about GAMBIT is the never-ending stream of fascinating folks that stop by our lab for a visit. Such previous guest-stars have included Mia Consalvo, Denis Dyack, Jason Rohrer, Warren Spector and Chris Swain, and this week our lab is pleased to welcome the brilliant and inestimable Dr. Celia Pearce.

the many faces of Celia Pearce

Readers of this blog may know Dr. Pearce from her work as the director of the Experimental Game Lab at Georgia Tech; from her work as the Festival Chair for the independent games festival IndieCade; from her 1997 book The Interactive Book: A Guide to the Interactive Revolution; or from her many other projects as outlined on her website Celia Pearce and Friends.

GAMBIT is pleased to invite anyone within traveling distance to a public talk by Dr. Pearce this Thursday evening here on the MIT campus. The talk, part of the MIT Comparative Media Studies Spring 2009 Colloquium Lecture Series, will be held on Feb. 5, 2009 from 5-7PM in Room 2-105. Here's the description:

Identity-as-Place: Fictive Ethnicities in Online Games & Virtual Worlds

This talk explores the connection of identity to virtual place, referencing in particular anthropology, humanist and socio-geography and Internet studies to look at the construction and performance of "fictive ethnicity" tied to a specific, though virtual and fictional, locality. To illustrate, Pearce will use the example of the "Uru Diaspora," a game community from the defunct massively multiplayer game Uru: Ages Beyond Myst (based on the Myst series), which immigrated into other games and virtual worlds, adopting the collective fictive ethnicity of "Uru Refugees," and referring to Uru as their "homeland." The study referenced concerns the largest group of Uru refugees, who immigrated into the virtual world These players developed unique hybrid cultures other games, including the creation of Uru-inspired digital artifacts, and through an eventual process of "transculturation" (Ortiz 1947) eventually transformed from "Uruvians" into "Uru-Thereians," integrating both virtual places into their collective identity. Through this example, Pearce will argue that in the current historical moment, in which connections between identity, community and place are being supplanted by the generic placenessness and identilessness of "global markets," the tendency of players in the Uru Diaspora to construct a shared, place-based identity may reflect a larger need by individuals to associate themselves with affinity groups and reclaim a sense of connection between a specific locality (place), community and identity.

Celia Pearce is a game designer, author, researcher, teacher, curator and artist, specializing in multiplayer gaming and virtual worlds, independent, art, and alternative game genres, as well as games and gender. She began designing interactive attractions and exhibitions in 1983, and has held academic appointments since 1998. Her game designs include the award-winning virtual reality attraction Virtual Adventures (for Iwerks and Evans & Sutherland) and the Purple Moon Friendship Adventure Cards for Girls. She received her Ph.D. in 2006 from SMARTLab Centre, then at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, University of the Arts London. She currently is Assistant Professor of Digital Media in the School of Literature, Communication and Culture at Georgia Tech, where she also directs the Experimental Game Lab and the Emergent Game Group. She is the author or co-author of numerous papers and book chapters, as well as The Interactive Book (Macmillan 1997) and the forthcoming Communities of Play: Emergent Cultures in Multiplayer Games and Virtual Worlds (MIT 2009). She has also curated new media, virtual reality, and game exhibitions and is currently Festival Chair for IndieCade, an international independent games festival and showcase series. She is a co-founder of the Ludica women's game collective.

We would like to extend the warmest of welcomes to Dr. Pearce, and we hope to see you all on Thursday evening!

Congrats to GAMBIT's Bartel and Sullivan!

GAMBIT would like to extend its heartiest congratulations to Steven Bartel (Muzaic, Ochos Locos, NeuroTrance, TenXion) and Mark Sullivan III (Moki Combat, NeuroTrance, gunPLAY, AudiOdyssey) who won two of MIT's biggest competitions this past week.

Bartel and three of his friends spent the past several weeks writing code for MIT's 6.370 BattleCode competition, an annual event that pits teams of MIT students against each other in a harrowing match of artificial intelligence programming skills. Here's an excerpt from fellow GAMBIT alumni Eitan Glinert's detailed summary of the event:

Each round of the compeition was a best of three match up in which teams who were eliminated early on move down to a loser's bracket, with the winner of the loser's bracket having a chance for redemption if they can beat the winner twice in a row.

Each match up was fought one of a set of several simple 2D maps which featured variable terrain and obstacles. Within each map were a few randomly placed "flux" (i.e. points) mines, and a team could win by gaining much more flux than their opponent. Flux mines needed to be controlled by a team in order to collect flux, and therefore these points were often the focus points of skirmishes due to their high value.

Each team started with a set of 6 flying, non-replaceable, self repairing archons which were the most valuable units in the game. Archons couldn't attack directly, but could spawn other disposable attack units like soilders and cannons. These attack units were useful as they could be used to attack (and potentially destroy) archons, tipping the tide of the game.

Several strategies were employed in the game, including having archons mass together and attack as a unit while ignoring flux in an effort to destroy the opposing team early. Another strategy was to split up and mine flux like crazy, hoping to survive enemy onslaughts. One of the more creative stratgies (employed by Greg from Rob Miller's HCI group at CSAIL) involved sending gigantic messages to enemies which would actually overload their message handlers, causing their scripts to fail in a sort of information warfare. The most successful teams would adapt to their enemies between match ups within rounds to exploit what they learned in the previous match up.

Check out Eitan's complete report for the nail-biting details!

Meanwhile, Mark Sullivan and his team won another of MIT's annual events, the 6.270 Autonomous LEGO Robot Design competition. Pictures are available of Mark and his robot in the Tech and a whole mess of other images at the event website. Added coolness points? Sullivan's team, Team 3, named their bot GLaDOS. Now where have we heard that name before...?

Congratulations, guys! We're proud of ya!

Desmond Wong and the Art of CarneyVale

The Independent Games Festival recently announced the finalists for this year's Seamus McNally Grand Prize, and all of us here at GAMBIT were thrilled to find our game CarneyVale: Showtime included on the list. Showtime, which was developed by the GAMBIT Singapore Lab using XNA and is available for download now on Microsoft's Xbox LIVE community service, is the spiritual sequel to our summer 2007 prototype game Wiip. We sat down Desmond Wong, a recent graduate of Nanyang Polytechnic who was the lead artist for both Showtime and Wiip, to discuss how art was used to link the growing CarneyVale franchise together.

CarneyVale: Showtime
CarneyVale: Showtime

How was the art style chosen for Wiip?

During the concept stages of Wiip, the team was trying to settle on a suitable theme for a whipping game. We tried all sorts of ideas and eras ranging from cowboy western to jungle tribal. However, none of the themes had that special factor to them, they felt too overused and unoriginal. Eventually, the idea of being a ringmaster settled in. We knew it would be cool to be a raging ringmaster with a ferocious whip, and the idea of a mysterious circus quickly came into play.

My initial concepts for Wiip were very dark and creepy, with outlandish animals and clowns. Although interesting, we knew that we needed something cuter and more approachable. Fortunately, the team had another artist who drew really cute and wonderful things. We had her take a stab at the early concepts, and she came up with her own cuter renditions. Eventually, the final product ended up as something both cute and creepy at the same time, a perfect balance between the two.

Art trailer for Wiip

How did the art style change between Wiip and Showtime?

If Wiip was the growing child, then Showtime is the maturing teenager. For Showtime, the art style took a more circus city feel to it. It was literally a city with circus performances on its streets. With that, we could have all assortments of neon signs, glowing lights and bustling color. The genral rendering of the characters also took a more mature turn. instead of kiddy characters, the characters in Showtime are more proportionate and grown. The style of shading also changed, employing more tones of shade and detail.

Despite all the changes, the art style was generally kept to roughly the same feel. The bright and colorful characters and scenery were still present, and the quirky designs never disappeared. It was just an art style evolving as time went on.

Who or what would you cite as the inspirations behind CarneyVale's art style?

The biggest inspirations for the art style for Showtime were definitely Cirque du Soleil and Las Vegas. I remember the team watching video performances by the Cirque du Soleil troupe, and the costume designs just blew my mind away. Las Vegas was also a huge inspiration to the art style. Being a city circus, I looked to Las Vegas for its neon lights and signboards to give life to CarneyVale. I also used Las Vegas a lot when trying to merge a circus and city together. I would look at photos of that city, and imagine it with circus elements on it, and it would always work.

Artists such as Yoji Shinkawa also give me tons of inspiration. Famous for his work in the Metal Gear series, what I really like about his works is his ability to generate such a distinct style of his own. The way he paints and conceptualises his ideas are what I respect most about this particular artist.

<a href="" target="_new" title="CarneyVale: Showtime trailer ">Video: CarneyVale: Showtime trailer </a>
The trailer for Showtime

How did you consciously use the art style to tie Wiip and Showtime together?

The colors were the main things. When I was working on Showtime, I made sure that my color palette contained all the colors I used with Wiip. This was mainly the reds and yellows, however, I made sure to inject new tones and colors to keep things fresh. I also made sure to include the familiar red and white curtains from Wiip in Showtime as well. This served as a link between the two games, and added a distinct circus vibe to the game as well.

The general details for the items in the world were also kept consistent to tie the two games together. For example, I employed a certain motif in Wiip that I reused on some of the props in Showtime to keep the world whole and seamless. Most importantly, the narrator for Showtime is the main character from Wiip. No better way to tie two games together than that.

What's your usual workflow like? How do you go about creating a piece of art for the game?

Cannon Concepts
Usually I start with an idea. Ideas can come from anywhere. I got the idea for the Grabber prop by walking past those toy machines where you had to direct a hand to grab the toy you wanted. When I have a general idea down, I take it to the paper and pen. I sketch my ideas out and make sure to do as many variations of it as I can. I also find it very useful to get input from the people around me at this stage when the idea is still fresh and at its infant stage.

Around this point, I start choosing the best few concepts and proceed to creating art for the game. I use Photoshop to draw out and color the art, and once that is done, I export it out and get it ready to be put into the game. From here on, it's mostly seeing what works and what does not. For example, the launcher for the missile looked good on paper, but when it was put into the game, it was a little too big and bright. The good thing is that once the art is there, it's mostly just tweaking to strike the perfect balance between making it look good and work well too.

If you were to do a third game in the series, what new types of imagery would you like to explore?

Wiip took place inside a busy circus tent, and Showtime took place in a bustling city at night. For the third installment, I would really like to see how the game would look like in outer space. We initially wanted to bring Showtime into space for the last few performances, but scrapped the idea in the end. What I really want to try is actually put Slinky in a world where gravity is at its weakest. The image of Slinky doing a double back flip in slow motion while floating upwards is too good to throw away.

Being outer space, I could go crazy with the art style. There are just so many quirky things an artist can design when he isn't restricted. Imagine shooting through the stars on a flying comet as you are flung through rings of fire in front of a multi-colored nebula. It would be nothing short of legendary.

The winner of the Independent Games Festival's Seamus McNally Grand Prize will be announced at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco this March. Keep an eye on this blog for more details!

(Note: this post previously appeared over at GAMBIT co-PI Henry Jenkins' blog, "Confessions of an Aca-Fan", at For a veritable cornucopia of media studies-related interviews, essays and insights, be sure to bookmark that site.)

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