April 30th 2009 is the date Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty takes place... or, more specifically, it's the date the final boss fight takes place, in which a katana wielding ex-president of the United States battles his adopted son atop the ruins of Federal Hall in New York City. MGS2 primarily takes place on April 29th 2009, with the events of the story lasting through the night and into the early morning. At daybreak on April 30th a giant submersible fortress, secretly built in New York Harbor to be the nerve center of a government censorship operation, surfaces and smashes through Manhattan, finally grinding to a halt on Wall Street.
Hideo Kojima's research is always meticulous, but he was off by 30 years in the case of April 30th 2009 being the 200th anniversary of George Washington's inauguration. Washington was sworn in as the 1st president of the United States on April 30th 1789, which would make the 200th anniversary 1989, not 2009.
The date could be a mistake, or maybe Kojima simply fudged the facts so his story could have thematic coherence. April 30th 2009 is extremely significant in MGS2. The reason Raiden pauses, mystified, when Solidus questions him is because his girlfriend, Rosemary, has asked him the exact same question over and over again: do you know what day it is today? She asked this because April 30th is the two year anniversary of their relationship, which Raiden has forgotten. When Solidus reveals that it's also the date the United States was born, and that he had chosen this day to overthrow the corrupt government and begin anew, it brings two seemingly unrelated aspects of the story to a single, devastating conclusion.
The connection between Raiden's relationship with his girlfriend and his relationship with his government, between the personal and the political, is the hook off which MGS2 hangs all of its ideas about video games, gamers, citizenship, and society. Raiden is a soldier who does what he's told, but he's also a gamer who's learned to follow orders by playing video games. Rosemary is his girlfriend whom he met two years earlier, but their chance encounter was actually orchestrated by the government in order to manipulate Raiden. Rosemary is a spy for The Patriots, the secret government body which dictates all American policy. Through Rosemary they control Raiden's life, observing him and shaping him into the perfect citizen: one who is easy to manipulate by appealing to his self-interest. Raiden never realizes Rosemary is lying to him because he's too interested in himself to notice... much in the same way he is too interested in himself to notice the government is lying to him. Raiden is just concerned with his own sense of elation, with his own sense of accomplishment, of achieving his objectives, of being rewarded... much in the same way the player is.
Raiden's performance (and, by extension, the player's) is so perfect, his ability to be manipulated so complete, that his behavior pattern is used as the basis for the government's censorship program. Who is the model citizen any police state would want? Someone who does everything they are told with Pavlovian precision, who goes through every room, collects every item, activates every cinematic, defeats every boss. Gamers, in their endless desire for gratification, are the perfect citizen. They just want to be told what to do, and they'll be happy.
Complacency as a player versus complacency as a citizen, selfishness in a relationship versus selfishness in a society: all these distinctions melt away in MGS2, leaving the player disgusted with one's self for wanting to be entertained. That's why MGS2 is a great game, and why every April 30th gamers should be reminded what utter tools we all are.
A few months ago, our lab opened its doors to Boston University journalism student Andrea Peterson, who was doing a piece on the process of making video games. Lo and behold, this morning we got an email from one of our alumni who had just spotted the resulting video on the Tech page of CNN.com!
Peterson's video was uploaded to iReport.com, the user-generated subsite from CNN, and has apparently been vetted for airing on CNN. The video features GAMBIT's Clara Fernández-Vara, Matthew Weise and Marleigh Norton speaking about a wide range of topics.
"What is it that we want to do? We have a world, what has happened in this world? And from that, what does the player have to do in order to discover that story?" notes Fernández-Vara. "The imagination has no limit. The limit that we have is time."
"I actually joke about how the game industry doesn't like to talk about the 'F' word, which is 'fun'," says Norton. "We all agree that everyone plays games for fun, but it's hard to quantify what that means."
5/1/09: Videogame Research and Development Open House
With the 2009 Boston Cyberarts/Cambridge Science Festival!
Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab
May 1, 2009, 2pm-6pm
5 Cambridge Center, 3rd Floor,
Cambridge, MA 02142
How are videogames made? Come to MIT and participate in the process of game development! Play games currently in development and learn about the innovative ideas behind them. Talk to the artists, designers, programmers, and managers that work together to produce an enjoyable, entertaining experience. Learn about the history of great digital games from Boston and Cambridge, and get a glimpse of a day in the life of a game research lab!
Admission is free. Kids, families, teens, and adults are welcome!
Last week, I went to the CHI conference, which is pronounced "kye" and stands for Human-Computer Interaction. Yeah, I know it doesn't match exactly, but how would you pronounce "HCI" anyway?
The field of HCI is the convergence of psychology, computer science, and design. Use psychology to understand the people. Use computer science to understand the computers. Use design to make it all work together. Lather, rinse, repeat, and voila! You have a well-designed system.
HCI techniques can be used for any system involving people and technology which includes... well, pretty much everything I can think of. It's a really broad field. That being said, I was pleased to see that CHI had some offerings specific to video games.
Wii All Play: The Console Game as a Computational Meeting Place
Amy Voida and Saul Greenberg
I first met Amy Voida at Georgia Tech when I was a Master's student and she was a teaching assistant. She wasn't into games research then and I'm psyched to see she's joined the cult. Our field could use more smart people like her.
The crux of the paper is a study she did on people who play console games together in the same room. For these people, it turned out the goal was not to save the princess or win the race, but rather to spend meaningful time with friends and family. As she points out, it's not "What makes video games fun?" but rather "Who makes video games fun?" Games that accommodate a diverse set of people with varying experience, preferences, and enthusiasm were key to a good gaming experience.
Designing Digital Games for Rural Children: A Study of Traditional Village Games in India
Matthew Kim, Akhil Mathur, Anuj Kumar, and John Canny
The goal? Create educational video games for children in rural India. The result? Crash and burn. The games were too Western. An adaptation of Frogger, for example, was the most easily accessible in terms of goals--crossing roads safely is a common occurrence in India. The idea of moving sideways to fit though gaps, though, was confusing. Who crosses a street like that in real life?
In order to make video games more accessible to the children, the researchers began studying the games children were already playing. Physical games, board games, whatever. They came up with a named set of structure elements, similar to the games ontology projects that pop up every once in a while in video game circles. By creating educational computer games that use the same elements as the games the children were already playing, they were able to create new games that the children could more easily identify with.
This sort of design philosophy is one of my favorites, to study the users and find their needs and interests, and then let the system flow from that. Pretty common in non-entertainment applications. Cool to see it being applied to game design.
Design Influence on Social Play in Distributed Exertion Games
Florian 'Floyd' Mueller, Martin R. Gibbs, and Frank Vetere
Ping pong for three players sounds weird enough. Ping pong for three players in different rooms seems even weirder. Strangely, it works better than one would think. Floyd Mueller presented an evaluation of his game Table Tennis for Three.
The thing that struck me about his talk--besides how hard it would be to market commercially--was how a lot of the joy of the game came from the people themselves. Much like with Amy Voida's study, people were bonding over this game. It allowed and encouraged chatting, showing off, cheating, and adapting the game in unexpected ways. For example, one trio had two novice ping pong players and one expert. They agreed the novices were allowed to use their hands while the expert could only use the paddle.
In video games, so much is artificial. So often you can't do anything except what the designers thought of ahead of time and the programmers coded in. It was nice to see a game that wasn't afraid to let the players just relax and play. So maybe using your hands isn't what the designers intended. So what? They're still having fun with the technology and each other. This kind of flexibility only added to the enjoyment of the game.
Like I said, HCI is a broad field. Believe it or not, there's some awesome stuff going on in the world that doesn't relate to video games.
Designing for Global Impact
Jan Chipchase's talk mostly seemed to be an hour long presentation of highlights from his blog. If that sounds boring, I assure you it isn't. He travels the world, studying the quirkiness of humanity and takes some pretty good pictures to boot.
Resilience Through Technology Adoption: Merging the Old and the New in Iraq
Gloria Mark, Ban Al-Ani, and Bryan Semaan
Picture this: the power's out, it's crazy hot out, and the generator can either power the air conditioner or the computer and router. What kind of person picks the computer? You're probably imagining a technogeek, but a modern Iraqi might pick that too.
Wow, this study was both awesome and gut-wrenching. These researchers conducted phone interviews on how technology is being used by civilians in Iraq to get by during war time. Information like what religious sect controls which streets today can be the difference between life and death. Unsurprising how some Iraqis went from low- or no-tech to high-tech in such a short time.
Mobile Technologies for the World's Children
Alison Druin (moderator), David Cavallo, Christopher Fabian, Ben Bederson, Glenda Revelle, Yvonne Rogers, and Jim Grey
And just so we don't end on a downer, the panel on mobile technology for kids brought together a super cool group of people from organizations like UNICEF, Sesame Workshop, Leapfrog, and OLPC. Special shout out to the International Children's Digital Library, which is a free online source of children's books from all over the world. I already downloaded their iPhone app, which sadly only has a few books, but not bad for the price of free.
This evening (Monday, April 13th 2009), the MIT Museum and the Comparative Media Studies program will be hosting a special colloquium panel discussion to examine the WOW Pod, a new collaborative project from artists Cati Vaucelle and Shada/Jahn. Here are the details:
On the WOW Pod:
A Design for Extimacy and Fantasy-Fulfillment for the World of Warcraft Addict
Panel Discussion Monday, April 13, 7:00 - 9:00 p.m.
265 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, MA
A discussion about the inducement of pleasure, fantasy fulfillment, and the mediation of intimacy in a socially-networked gaming paradigm such as World of Warcraft (WOW) in conjunction with the exhibition SHADA/JAHN/VAUCELLE, "Hollowed," which includes the WOW Pod, a collaborative project by Cati Vaucelle & Shada/Jahn.
World of Warcraft (WOW) is a massive online multi-player game that attracts millions of players. A typical scenario for teenagers addicted to the game is to settle down in front of the monitor on Friday night and collapse on Sunday night. Sleep deprivation as well as high saturated fat diet is the pride of these players who barely take any breaks, and when they do they sign the typical "AFK" ("Away from Keyboard") that pops up on top of their avatar. The average AFK is two minutes, time to run to the fridge, to open a bag of potato chips, to replenish the glass of milk, or go to the bathroom. A model for an immersive architectural solution that anticipates all life needs, WOW Pod by Vaucelle/Shada/Jahn responds to these conditions.
Jean-Baptiste Labrune, Postdoctoral Associate at the Tangible Media Group, MIT Media Lab
Raimundas Malasauskas, Curator, Artists Space (NYC)
Henry Jenkins, Co-Director of the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program
Marisa Jahn, Artist in Residence, MIT Media Lab
Steve Shada, artist collaborator
Cati Vaucelle, artist collaborator and PhD candidate at the MIT Media Lab
Laura Knott, Curatorial Associate, MIT Museum
This event is presented by the MIT Museum in collaboration with the Visual Arts Program, MIT School of Architecture + Planning, and the Comparative Media Studies Program, MIT School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences.
5/8/09: MIT Sloan to host its first ever Business in Gaming Conference
Digital distribution, marketing, and in-game advertising are the themes of MIT Sloan School of Management's inaugural Business in Gaming Conference being held on Friday, May 8, 2009 on the business school's campus. The conference will bring together industry leaders, game developers, academics, and students from leading MBA schools to discuss the newest business trends and the future of the gaming industry.
Ken Levine, president of 2K Boston, who led the creation of the multi-million selling, multiple game-of-the year award winning title, BioShock, will serve as the conference's inaugural key note speaker.
Other speakers will include:
Susan Bonds, 42 Entertainment's president and CEO. Bonds, the brains behind creative publicity campaigns for games such as Halo, guided the creative team behind this year's most successful ARG 'WhySoSerious' to promote the award-winning blockbuster film The Dark Knight;
John Rizzo, CEO of Zeebo, who spearheaded the creation of the first fully managed digital distribution console,
Scot Osterweil, MIT research director and designer of Zoombinis Island Odyssey and the games Switchback and Yoiks!; and
Curt Schilling (Boston Red Sox's three-time World Series champion) is slated to speak on a Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) Business Model panel.
Panelists from Turbine, creator of The Lord of the Rings Online and Dungeons & Dragons Online, and Mythic, creator of Warhammer Online, will talk about the future of this segment's business model. Representatives from such companies as Google, Massive, GamerDNA, and Mana Potions will address in-game advertising.
"Few gaming industry conferences focus exclusively on the business side of the gaming industry," says MIT Sloan MBA Dennis Fu, one of the conference organizers. "MIT, which is the birthplace of companies such as Harmonix, is in the unique position to lead in this area."
The recent flash game Death vs Monstars, playable on several websites, is a hardcore shooter openly inspired by dual-stick shooters such as Smash TV and Geometry Wars. The reviews for the game have been strange: they have reservations about its derivative nature but recognize that it is fun. The IndieGames Weblog says it contains "such silly gimmicks as 'Berserk Mode' and 'Bullet Time'" but nevertheless it is "great fun." The Digital Battle reviewer writes: "It's a clever little game, make no mistake on that one. There's lots of enemies and tons of power-ups, so you'll likely have lots of fun playing with this casual shooting experience." This review strikes me as odd: one rarely associates "casual" with "tons of enemies and tons of power-ups." The overall tone of the review is positive, but this excerpt makes the game sound completely uninteresting: enemies and power-ups have been done to death (pun intended), and "casual" is often used to mean "easy." Jay is Games is more positive: "As brainless as Death Vs. Monstars comes across, it is constructed smartly. Monsters appear in well-paced waves, and their movement patterns complement each other." What I find lacking in these reviews is that they focus on the game mechanics while ignoring the dynamics. Here I am using the definitions of "mechanics" and "dynamics" put forth by Hunicke, LeBlanc and Zubek in their paper MDA: A Formal Approach to Game Design and Game Research: "Mechanics describes the particular components of the game, at the level of data representation and algorithms;" "Dynamics describes the run-time behavior of the mechanics acting on player inputs and each other's outputs over time." In other words, the game mechanics are what the player can do, which in the case of DvM includes moving, shooting, upgrading, and so on. The dynamics are what actually happens when the game is played. This critical review is an attempt to explain what makes Death vs Monstars compelling by examining the game's dynamics.
Arguably the most important aspect of the game is the control scheme. In DvM the player controls Death with the mouse while Death shoots an endless stream of bullets backwards. Holding the left mouse button locks the current firing direction, allowing the player to move in any direction while firing the same way. Double-clicking will cause Death to enter "berserk mode," which fires several rings of bullets and transforms enemy bullets into money. Holding the space bar enables "bullet time," which slows down all enemies and their bullets. Despite its simplicity, much of the game's depth comes from these controls.
At first glance the fact that Death always fires backwards seems like a hack, a poor attempt to duplicate the dual-analog control of Geometry Wars and Smash TV, where firing backwards is a common tactic. Using the left mouse button to fix direction or "strafe" also feels like a hack, giving the player marginally more control. However, this control scheme creates a surprisingly deep dynamic. Unlike dual-analog shooters, in DvM it is extremely difficult to change fire direction quickly. Frequently, the optimum strategy is to hold the mouse button, fixing the fire direction, in order to concentrate on the largest groups of enemies. On the downside this leaves a lot of space for enemies to attack. Gameplay-wise this results in fixing the firing direction for a few seconds, then re-positioning Death and the fire direction for a few more seconds. In essence, the player is constantly re-defining the space in the game, dividing it between attackable and un-attackable. For example, if the player situates Death in the lower-right corner while shooting towards the upper-left, Death's bullet stream covers a large space, making it attackable and quickly destroying any Monstars in that area. On the other hand, the space behind and around Death becomes un-attackable and hence dangerous, because it will take a few moments to re-position Death to attack Monstars that appear in that space. In any twitch shooter a few moments are an eternity, so the player must always be planning to change position and attack direction.
The player controls Death, the white skull; green circles and yellow stars are Death's bullet; coins are gold; everything else is hostile.
Another element that makes Death vs Monstars unique is the upgrade system. Although countless games use the same "kill things to get better at killing things" feedback loop, in DvM money encourages the player to constantly engage in risk-reward thinking. This happens because all of the enemies drop money when killed, and the player will naturally want that money. Because the control scheme causes the player to kill enemies in one area at a time, usually there are a lot of Monstars between Death and the money, making it extremely difficult to acquire. This is where "bullet time" comes in: by slowing down the action it is much easier to fly into dangerous space, grab the money, and re-orient the firing direction before the Monstars can react. Unlike other hardcore shooters, the enemies in DvM do not fire complex bullet patterns, and Death's hitbox is relatively large. Because of this, bullet time is rarely useful for actually dealing with bullets.
The upgrade system has another potential consequence, depending on how the player is choosing to play. The Jay is Games review notes that the shop is "abusable." This is because it is possible to replay older levels to farm money. Also, if a player dies midway through the level they keep any money they had collected. A dedicated player could theoretically replay the first level over and over until they can purchase every upgrade. However, the short length of the game enables a different sort of strategy: if the player decides to go through the game without repeating levels, the shop becomes extremely important. Unless they die frequently, the player will be unable to afford every upgrade so they must carefully consider what to purchase. There is a constant choice between upgrading now to make the next level easier, or trying to beat the next level as-is, so as to buy an even more powerful upgrade later. Upgrades also allow the player to tune the difficulty: not purchasing them can make the game significantly harder.
The Death vs Monstars Shop
How frequently players actually chose sub-optimum weapons or similar equipment, in any game, is another matter. Intuitively this seems uncommon, as evidenced by the enormous market for powerful items from MMORPGs. Using these types of feedback loops to improve an avatar or other in-game object seems to be intrinsically pleasing: an enormous amount of tower defense games and RPGs depend almost entirely on the player's ability to maximize such loops. What makes DvM interesting is how the short length allows the player to experiment with the loop and rapidly understand it.
What I have tried to do with this review is show how games in general, and Death vs Monstars in particular, cannot be adequately described in terms of their mechanics. DvM is a great example because so many of the game's mechanics are seen elsewhere, which initially makes the game seem derivative, but by examining the dynamics we find that it is actually quite innovative. For example, explaining the control system says nothing of its fundamental impact on strategy, and mentioning the upgrade system does not reveal its many affordances. Similarly, descriptions such as "tons of enemies and tons of power-ups" or "berserk mode and bullet time" do not tell the reader how the game actually plays. This is why the reviews quoted at the start of this article were conflicted: by focusing on the mechanics they only saw what was derivative. They recognized that the game is fun, but not that the fun is in the dynamics. Reviews that focus on dynamics can provide a more accurate description of how a game plays, giving the player a better idea of whether they will enjoy the game.
One of the greatest high points of an academic's career is when they are awarded a chair in recognition of their work. Today Ian Bogost brought it to our attention that our own Jesper Juul already has a chair at IKEA.
As Ian notes in his blog:
On first blush it looks like those ill-fated ergonomic chairs of the 1980s, but it's really just a bench at two heights. The user is meant to straddle the lower height and use the upper to rest his arms while holding a videogame controller, avoiding the strenuous and annoying work of holding up his own arms.
Even more remarkable is the seat's name: Jesper. No matter the commonality of this forename, surely we can only conclude that this product represents the Swedish company's attempt to take advantage of fellow scandinavian and well-known games researcher Jesper Juul.
The difference between him and his namesake bench? Juul can hold his own arms up while playing videogames.
We're going to have to pick up a couple for the lab. One can never have too many Jespers, after all. Anyone interested in their very own signed Jesper (the bench, not the ludologist) can ping the good Dr. Juul via his blog or his website.
(Thanks to Clara Fernandez-Vara and Ian Bogost for the story and the image!)
Sissies, Musketeers, Street Fighter, and Floss: The Game Design Workshop 2009
The Game Design Workshop at GDC 2009 began with a series of lists. During the opening presentation, the 100+ workshop participants received a crash course in the MDA Framework, eight kinds of "fun," four possible aesthetic goals, and various dynamic models. As a professor here likes to write all over our papers: "Jargon!" Personally, I enjoyed the presentation. Marc LeBlanc et al laid out a solid foundation for the formal approach to game design that would shape the next two days. After reading Rules of Play, a 20 minute lecture was hardly daunting. But not every designer has the same theoretical background. There were plenty of programmers, artists, and others who were just interested in the design exercises and getting their feet wet in another discipline. More than a few participants found the presentation to be too technical and uninteresting. How does this all jargon fit into the actual process of design? Hopefully some of the participants skeptical of the theory discovered the applications along the way.
We spent most of the first day creating variations on Sissyfight. Originally designed by Eric Zimmerman and released on the web (as Sissyfight 2000), a simplified card-based version has become a mainstay of game design exercises. Six players are each assigned distinct colors and have a deck containing a card for every action and a card for every color. Once all the players have placed their selected action and target cards face-down, the cards are flipped and the actions resolved. In the simplified version, the commands are a basic attack (deal 1 point of damage), a team attack (deal 2 damage per team attacker, but fails if there's only one), and defend (receive half damage, rounded down). The game continues until there two players are left with health tokens.
With our 6-person teams, we discussed and analyzed the game before creating our own variation. One of Sissyfight's strong points is how its simple mechanics work to convey the theme of schoolyard girls taunting each other. Without the name, it's still an engaging game, but keeping the theme in mind lends the game a lighter humorous quality. The question we faced was how could we change the mechanics to communicate a different aesthetic. With 20 ideas, from monster trucks to debating, we gradually narrowed down our options. The idea we settled on was a combination of tribal and spiritual warfare. Two distinct conceptions of the theme were playtested. First we split the players into two tribes to make the game 3 vs 3. When that turned out to be too unbalanced without extensive complications, we returned to an earlier idea of converting followers. The result was a pool that all damage went into, which could then be claimed by a player if they were the only one to take that action in a turn. But as we iterated, we focused more on making the new mechanic interesting and balanced than matching the theme.
In contrast, another team did a game about bacteria where every card had a post-it note renaming the actions to things like infect and mutate. Each of their changes also were more geared towards following the theme, though it seemed to have some fairly arbitrary limitations. What was really interesting was how they saw the player interactions during the game. My team generally avoided ganging up on any one person and kept the scheming to a minimum. The other team played with constant discussion of alliances against other players and actually incorporated this as a phase in their game progression. With the same set of rules, the two groups had completely different social dynamics. Maybe this was reflected in our design process too. We tended to listen and discuss every person's ideas and tried to incorporate all input. But as a result, our prototyping process slowed. The other group seems to have made firmer decisions and then had time to incorporate the theme more fully. On the flipside, our team really polished the changed mechanic. The difference here actually brings to light one of my problems with the MDA framework. The A in MDA refers to aesthetics that result from the mechanics and dynamics, separate from any visual or narrative aesthetics. I don't disagree, but I worry that MDA overemphasizes the mechanics influence on aesthetics. Simply renaming the cards and describing the gameplay from within the theme added a lot to the bacteria team. Would Braid have been nearly as effective without its elaborate artwork and music? But thats an issue for a different, and much longer, post.
Following our second coffee break of the day (there was no shortage of caffeine during the conference) we began Elective A. We had a choice of three activities and I participated in Robin Hunicke's Facebook game session. Each team had to come up with an idea for a social Facebook-based game and then present their proposal to a team of producers who assign a sponsorship to the game. The next iteration would then have to somehow incorporate the sponsor. One of my favorite proposals was a collaborative art game where the best results would be printed on Threadless tees. But for such an interesting activity, I left pretty disappointed as did the rest of my team. See, the youngest person at each table was placed onto the producer team. I can see that Robin was trying to give us a special role, but in the end we had very little to do aside from listening to pitches, picking a sponsor, and giving a few suggestions. On top of that, Robin was obviously very excited about the activity and ended up doing a fair amount of the talking for us. Don't get me wrong, she's a blast to work with, her enthusiasm was infectious, and she gave great input. Just next time: Can we play too?
For the second elective that spanned the last hour of Monday and all of Tuesday morning, I chose "The Three Musketeers." Similar to the Sissyfight activity, we were given a simple game that we would make changes to. Three Musketeers is a simple two-player asymmetric board game. Rather than make a thematic change like with Sissyfight, we were asked to preserve the theme while adding a third player (and a fourth if possible). So if you have The Three Musketeers against Cardinal Richelieu's men, who is the third player? Some teams added d'Artagnan or another third distinct side, though most ended up splitting either the Musketeers or the Cardinal into two. With the asymmetric sides, it was particularly difficult to add a player while maintaining a balance. My team, again using an iterative process (moral of Game Design Workshop: iteration is good), where we had two pairs of Musketeers working independently. But the Cardinal's win condition was to have any three Musketeers in a line. This meant that the two Musketeer players had to strike a balance with each other. By the way, is there really no flash implementation of Three Musketeers? Someone fix this!
Next up was a short activity where each team chose an existing video game and create a paper version that conveyed the aesthetics (using the MDA definition) rather than the mechanics. Now this is a fascinating thought experiment. My team chose Street Fighter and we quickly developed a rock-paper-scissors style play. The designers on the team revealed very different conceptions of how the game would actually play. One designer was convinced that the game needed to be frantic and fast-paced, with players throwing dice or placing cards as fast as possible. This proved to be impractical, but revealed how players see Street Fighter in different ways. It's the difference between button-mashing and strategic choice of moves. A less experienced player would throw out whatever moves they could while an expert player would be planning moves in advance. Our version kept a similar distinction by implementing a time limit. Players place three actions (high, medium, low attacks, and directional movement) face-down on the table. Once one player has placed all three cards they count down from three. If the other player hasn't placed all their cards, they have a missed move. The result is that if the player doesn't plan ahead and constantly reorganize their cards, they could fall behind. The actions we specified definitely could use some adjustment (jump and crouch gave no advantage, only added a disadvantage), but the idea was so successful that I hope to make a fuller implementation at some point. After we presented our game, a man came up to me and explained that he made the Street Fighter card game, and it was very similar to what we had done. I guess we were on the right track.
And finally, to close out the workshop, I signed up for Iron Game Designer. Each team was given an identical bag of objects to make a game with. Rather than giving us typical game-related objects, we had rubber pencil toppers, elbow braces, plastic two-pronged forks, floss picks, a comb, and a plastic bag. One group made a board game using the objects to replace traditional pieces, but the others mostly grew out of throwing things. It was certainly fun, and a relaxing end to the workshop, but using a floss pick and the forks as bow and arrows isn't exactly a useful design exercise.
Still, the workshop as a whole was a resounding success, giving us a chance to come up with unique ideas and make some rapid prototypes. I'm not sure how much I learned that could be articulated, but the activities provided plenty of food for thought. Would I recommend the Game Design Workshop for next year's attendees? Absolutely. Will I attend again? Doubt it. There are other summits those two days that I'd like to attend. As far as the Game Design Workshop, I'd be more interested in a workshop held locally every other month or so; essentially a game jam of exclusively non-digital games where go through a variety of small projects.
Steal This Idea!
Philip Tan, US Executive Director, Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab
Are you wrestling with pipelines? Managing multiple projects? Designing emotional games? Or just looking for a different way to play? Games developed by the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab challenge assumptions about how games "should" be designed, developed, and played. We'll demonstrate a few of them and describe opportunities for intrepid teams that want to rethink their game development processes and methodologies.
Rapid and Iterative Prototyping, or How to Rip Off Dinosaur Comics
Eitan Glinert, Founder and Creative Director, Fire Hose Games
Ethan Fenn, Programmer, Fire Hose Games
You want to make a game, but you're missing an artist, you don't have the design nailed down, you need to find funding, and you don't know what platform you're going to develop for. How do you even start? With prototyping! In this energetic talk we'll walk through the iterative rapid prototyping process we went through making our first title, and we'll demo builds created along the way to highlight key points. The lessons we'll cover are geared towards new developers figuring out how to get off the ground, but we'll have plenty of tips for more seasoned industry vets.
Other speakers currently scheduled to appear at the conference include:
Dallas Snell, Co-Founder of Origin Systems Austin
Vladimir Starzhevsky, Co-Founder and CEO of Creat Studios, Inc.
Brett Close, President and CEO of 38Studios
Norma Crippen, VP of Executive Recruiting and Client Services at the Mary-Margaret Network
Darius Kazemi from Orbus Gameworks
Steve Meretzky, VP of Game Design at Playdom
Judy Tyrer, Networking Engineer at Red Storm Entertainment
Duncan Watt, Founder and Creative Director of Fastestmanintheworld
Today we are announcing the release of a new game for download: Sc-rum'pet: The Om-Nom Adventures. Sc-rum'pet is a one-button game in which the player guides a space alien named Sc-rum'pet through various challenges in a quest to earn his wings (because, ya know, aliens need their wings).
The core concept for Sc-rum'pet is quite simple. Sc-rum'pet travels through space based on magnetism, being either attracted to or repelled from objects based on polarity. The player controls polarity with a single button, and must switch polarity at the right moments to guide Sc-rum'pet through a level. That's about all there is to it.
The Pleasures of Old School Resident Evil - Hollywood Infection
Resident Evil: Code Veronica is not Reisdent Evil 4, although it is the fourth game in the RE series. In some ways (like the way in which it actually continues the story of RE2) I prefer it to a tepid narrative exercise like RE3. In other ways I find it undercuts the apocalyptic anxiety that even RE3 managed to maintain. Code Veronica is the point in the series where the shift from horror to action--at least in terms of characterization--happens most clearly. It is when the protagonists cease to be normal people and become action heroes.
I find it significant that Code Veronica was the first Resident Evil to be released after The Matrix (in March 2000). Claire, whom we last saw as a modestly skilled biker in RE2, inexplicably behaves like Chow Yun-Fat in the opening cinematic, dodging helicopter bullets and obliterating a room full of security guards with her powers of slow motion. Of course, it wasn't until RE4 that these sorts of action hero acrobatics made it into gameplay, but they are first introduced into the fictive universe of RE in Code Veronica, causing an unmistakable tonal shift. The shift moves the series away from the horror film roots of George Romero and towards the big Hollywood action of Michael Bay or the Wachowski Brothers. It's not about regular people trapped in a horrifying zombie outbreak anymore. It's about secret islands, villains with master plans, and ass-kicking heroes taking them down. Oh, and there are some zombies in there too.
Claire, fresh out of John Woo school, gets serious in Code Veronica.
To be fair, Code Veronica only embodies this in the cut-scenes, with the gameplay remaining the slow, Romero-esque suspense of earlier RE games. This gives the game a weird tonal contrast, between the action movie plotline and the horror movie atmosphere and pacing. This is partially what makes Code Veronica more interesting (at least story-wise) than RE4, since it seems to exist in some awkward purgatory between Hollywood gloss and indie grit.
It's true that RE has never been fully an imitation of Romero. There has always been a layer of Hollywood action mixed in with the more Romero-esque elements. Both RE1 and 2 end with "escape before the explosion" sequences, both which seem lifted directly out Aliens. Both RE1 and 2 tend to leave their zombie movie conventions behind at their most climactic moments as well, opting for spectacular last boss encounters with creatures that are anything but zombies. But still, it's worth pointing out that even in these moments the feeling in RE1 and 2 was of more or less normal people being set against these odds. Claire is just a biker looking for her brother, and Leon is just a cop. Neither of them know kung-fu, neither of them can jump or flip--in short, they are only as good as the weapons they have... much like we might imagine ourselves in similar circumstances. Chris and Jill in RE1 are similar, even through they are the members of a supposedly "elite" police unit. The S.T.A.R.S, at least in RE1, are not super heroes. They are basically no different than the S.W.A.T. team in Romero's Dawn of the Dead: real people without super powers. The only difference between them and zombie food is the fact that they still have some bullets left.
In the early Resident Evil games zombies were the great equalizer that brought everyone down to the same level. RE2 suggests there's not a damn difference between a biker and a cop when it comes to being trapped in a city overrun with zombies. It's exactly this sort of humanizing subtext that gets gradually eroded over the course of the series, until we finally arrive at Leon in RE4 who can dodge lasers like Neo.
The Pleasures of Old School Resident Evil - Political Shenanigans
I suppose I'm just a sucker for politics, but I find the backstory in Resident Evil 3 pretty interesting when it touches on the machinations of the Umbrella Corporation and their dealings with the U.S. government. Almost everything else about the story--in which a group of survivors attempt to escape zombie-infested Raccoon City--is forgettable. RE3 works best when it functions as a world-building exercise, least when it functions as a zombie survivor story.
Jill, whom you play the majority of the game, is a motivationless cypher in a ridiculous outfit. Carlos, the other character you play, is both a stereotype and a moron. Nemesis, the boss monster who chases you throughout the entire city, is just a rehash of the far-scarier Mr. X from RE2. On the other hand the world of RE3--the destroyed city you get to explore with all the fragmented narrative information it contains--is quite interesting. Ironically, the written information one comes across in RE3 (in the form of diaries, journals, reports, and pamphlets) is better written than in most of the other RE games. One of the big reasons RE1 remains the scariest game in the series is the fact that the various documents strewn throughout the Arklay mansion were effectively cryptic, forcing the player to piece together information. RE2 was a major step backwards from this suspenseful storytelling, featuring a collection of journals and notes that left little room for interpretation, often referring to "zombie attacks" like everyone already knew what they were. There's a reason Simon Pegg in Shawn of the Dead admonishes his best buddy not to use the "zed word". Why, his friend asks? "Because it's ridiculous" is the answer. It is ridiculous, because it reminds us that "zombies" are movie monsters ingrained in our pop-cultural consciousness, and casually acknowledging the fact diminishes their impact. RE1 never crossed this line, but RE2 was lazy about it. RE3, however, seems to consciously avoid using the term "zombie" as well as return to a deliberately cryptic backstory. The result is that the backstory feels like the real story of RE3, a story in which Raccoon City is the main character and Jill, Carlos, and Nemsis are simply vessels to reveal this story to the player.
This would be a fine storytelling strategy, provided the forestory involving the characters wasn't lame to the point of distraction. Unfortunately, the care with which the Raccoon City backstory has been crafted clashes greatly with the crassness of Jill's hotpants adventure. I don't need a great forestory. I don't need RE2's story. But Capcom could at least have the decency to give me something on par with RE1, where the characters are little more than witnesses but at least believable ones. Jill seems like she's fallen into RE3 from out of a summer wear modeling photo shoot, which gives a subtle sheen of "you've got to be kidding me" to even the best moments of RE3.
Regardless, the political aspect of RE3 remains interesting. If I remember correctly, RE1 implied that one of Umbrella's main clients was the United States, and that the zombie outbreak was merely an accidental byproduct of research concerned with creating military bio-weapons. RE3 seems to be the only other game in the series which picks up this thread, suggesting that Umbrella lobbyists in Congress are trying to stall government intervention in the Raccoon City disaster, assumedly in order to salvage as much of their research as possible. These ploys fail and an atomic bomb is dropped on Raccoon City in the closing cinematic. It's the government, and not Umbrella of course, which makes the decision to blow Raccoon City off the face of the Earth. If you take RE1 into account, the subtle implication is that the government dropped the bomb simply to cover its own ass, so that no evidence would remain of their involvement and Umbrella alone could conveniently take the fall.
Well, that's one way to deal with a zombie outbreak.
Even though RE3 is a side story, this one event--the destruction of Raccoon City--is in many ways the most interesting piece of world-building in the whole series. It contains all sorts of fascinating implications, none of which are ever explored by subsequent Resident Evil installments. My biggest disappointment with Resident Evil 4 was how the old politics of RE were forgotten in favor of what felt like a sudden rash of Bush-era xenophobia. Gone is the idea that you are somehow up against both corporate and government corruption. Next thing you know you're the loyal servant of Uncle Sam, in whose name you gladly exterminate the biohazard-infected locals of various foreign countries. They deserve it because, it turns out, they plan to use their biological weapons for world domination. Never mind that Umbrella was selling biological weapons to the U.S. government just a few years earlier, and for God knows what purpose. Apparently it's okay if the U.S. has them because... well... they're the U.S. It's just not okay for anyone else to have them.
In retrospect I am amazed (although I obviously shouldn't be) at the complete moral blindness the series has exhibited towards Umbrella's clients. Who are they? Aren't they partially responsible for the horrors of Umbrella's research? One of the things that was so scary in the original Resident Evil was the fact that the perpetrators were, shockingly, a pharmaceutical company. What's scarier than a monolithic corporation motivated by nothing but greed, to whom a zombie outbreak is a tragedy only because it might affect their stocks?
This is what made Umbrella so chilling back in the day. One imagined they were like the Omni Consumer Products corporation in Robocop: a bunch of uptight suits whose disinterest in human life was so extreme it became black comedy. You can just imagine some executive sweating that he'll lose his Christmas bonus over the Arklay mansion debacle, and this is largely what gave Umbrella its terrible ambiance. Unfortunately, as the series continued and the mythology grew more elaborate, the Umbrella Corporation morphed from a simple capitalistic enterprise to a sinister organization determined to do evil for its own sake. The most significant jump in this direction was Code Veronica, which revealed Umbrella was partially owned by a dynasty of sadistic maniacs. Resident Evil Zero pushed this trend even farther, making Umbrella seem more like a cabal of sorcerers than an actual corporation. With Umbrella's motivations sinking ever further into the fantastic, the notion that they were a company with clients (one of which was the U.S.) sank into the background and finally disappeared completely. In the end Umbrella was the villain, not unchecked capitalism... which would have been a lot scarier if you ask me.