After a couple of weeks of conferences and big events, Friday Games at GAMBIT is back! We'll start at the usual time, 4pm in the GAMBIT TV Lounge, 5 Cambridge Center, 3rd Floor.
Given that ROFLcon is running right across the street, we're keeping it pretty simple this week. I'll be demoing Sakura Wars: So Long My Love in which you date girls piloting steam-powered mechs and put on Broadway musicals to save New York from demons. It's the first official US release in the series, featuring Japanese dialogue, English text, and very strange characterizations.
Instead of preparing a talk, I'll show some videos of the live-action stage musicals if people can handle the weirdness/awesome, and also riff on the Takarazuka stage tradition that inspired the games.
Created specifically for the 2010 PAX EAST Conference... This sizzle reel showcases the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab's 2009-2010 game output as well as our history as a lab and a small view of the tradition of gaming at MIT. Video produced by Generoso Fierro, Edited by Garrett Beazley
Hideo Kojima's political mythologizing, which was so frustratingly absent from Metal Gear Solid 4, seems to have returned with a vengeance in Peace Walker. Returning to the Cold War era seems to have energized him and his team, with a game that looks to be more colorful and focused than MGS4's mish-mash of half-realized ideas. A lot of this might have to do with the fact that Peace Walker is clearly a game he wants to make, not one he thinks fans want him to make. No one asked for a euphoric, philosophical, Wagnerian extravaganza set against the backdrop of Nixon's resignation, but Kojima and Co. seem determined to deliver a bizarre, science-fiction version of the politically-charged 1970s whether you want it or not.
Cold War Punk. What else could you call it? MGS3, with its strange James Bond-inspired retro-futurism, certainly was this, and now that we have this label we could easy include things like the Fallout series. Such works exploit the iconography of that era to create fantastic worlds, alternate 20th centuries whose familiar symbolic landscapes are reconfigured into operatic counter-mythologies of world history. They mythologize the 50's, 60's, and 70's the way Sergio Leone mythologized the American West, turning it into a larger-than-life fantasy world that comments on the real world through exaggeration.
The symbolic universe of Peace Walker already seems a thousand times richer than MGS4. The use of television as a visual motif, of using what I can only assume is a riff on the emergency broadcast system (the TV images that was supposed to show if there was a nuclear attack), is instantly evocative. And the modification of the peace symbol, so that it looks like a bomber jet, perfectly embodies the contradiction at the center of the game's story, that war and peace are inseparable.
This is expressed in a Kant quote that presumably begins the game, that peace is an "unnatural" state, that the natural state of human affairs is war, that peace must be "created" by war. This doesn't seem to be a conclusion Kojima agrees with so much as a terrifying philosophical position that explains the madness of the Cold War. The title of the game is a reference to Metal Gear, the walking nuclear deterrent. By threatening war it ensures peace, thus it is the "peace walker", a walking machine that creates peace out of war. It is a monster that embodies the Kantian contradiction, just as the modified peace symbol does, as does the visual motif, seen in the Maurice Binder-style trailer, of one finger versus two fingers.
One finger extended can press a button and end everything, but raise another finger and you have "peace". The way the trailer ends, with the emergency broadcast system image, with the modified peace/war symbol at its center, being "pressed" by a single finger (as if it were a launch button), only to have a second finger at the last moment extend and create "peace", right before the TV image violently cuts and the world is plunged into (nuclear?) oblivion... this all represents a marvelously coherent appropriation of pop-cultural symbolic language to express what the game's about. It's the madness of nuclear brinkmanship distilled to a single, potent image.
It's because of this trailer that I did a little reading and realized that the peace symbol is, in fact, a direct reference to nuclear disarmament. It is an iconic abstraction of "N" and "D" in semaphore code, so the attempt to also associate "fingers" simultaneously with nuclear destruction and nuclear disarmament seems a fitting extension. If the difference between peace and war is one finger, how hard is it to extend that extra finger? But even then, what would it mean? One finger can press a button, but does two fingers necessarily mean peace? Kojima mentioned in an interview that even 'v' is ambiguous. It could be 'v' for victory. Is victory the same as peace? Is peace only created through victory, through war? Peace Walker layers all these double meanings on top of each other, so that they become a haze of contradictions we feel lost in.
It is a very Kubrickian view of war, and indeed Kojima seems to be drawing from Stanley Kubrick in both subtle and unsubtle ways. Not only is there a character in the game called "Strangelove", everything about the game seems to suggest war's absurd duality, a view that was most directly expressed in Full Metal Jacket, in the scene where Matthew Modine's character is questioned by his commander as to why he would wear a peace symbol on his helmet. His response is ""I think I was trying to suggest something about the duality of man, the Jungian thing..."
"Jungian" would be a good way to describe the insane symbolic universe of Metal Gear, with its bizarre characters, technology, and iconography that seem to rise out of our (or at least Kojima's) pop-cultural unconscious. Kojima's graphic design team is incredible, and they seem fascinated by collecting symbols and icons that elegantly capture the big ideas they want to explore.
Unfortunately, Kojima doesn't seem able to capitalize on these rich symbolic systems--to really back them up with content--as well as you'd hope, the way people like Alan Moore do in Watchmen (another work we might call Cold War Punk). This has especially been a problem lately. MGS4 was more about oogling tits and teary reunions than really examining in detail the socio-political implications of a war-driven global economy. Kojima sometimes seems to make the mistake (which, I'd argue, is a common pattern among fans-turned-practitioners) of confusing symbolism with content. At his best moments, his symbolic labels and operatic exaggerations serve to reinforce an underlying depth (The Joy and The Sorrow in MGS3) but at other times they insistent on a depth that just isn't there or--at worst--blatantly contradicted by crass presentation (the Beauty and the Beast Unit in MGS4).
What Kojima and his team are consistently excellent at is showmanship. What he's really promising with such ads is that his games will be about these ideas, and he has delivered enough in the past (mostly in MGS2 and MGS3) to still make such hype genuinely exciting. Most game makers don't even seem interested in promising such things. And even if Kojima doesn't keep these promises, maybe somebody inspired by his tantalizing sound and fury will.
It has been brought to my attention that what I thought was an artistic riff on the U.S. emergency broadcast system was, in fact, a PAL test pattern. The color bars that I showed above (known as the "SMPTE color bars") are the NTSC test pattern. The black and white image to its right, known as the "Indian Head test pattern", is what the NTSC test pattern was before the color era. Both test patterns have vague connotations of nuclear disaster in the U.S., because the Emergency Broadcast System used to show the test pattern on television and state that this is what would show in the case of a nuclear attack. I have personal memory of this, having grown up in the 80s in the U.S., which is perhaps why I and other American game makers associate the SMPTE color bars with national emergencies.
I had originally assumed that Peace Walker's test pattern was some combination of the SMPTE color bars and the Indian Head circles, but it's actually just a copy of the PAL test pattern. This makes me wonder if the theoretical practice of showing test patterns in the case of nuclear attack was as strong in PAL regions during the Cold War as it was in the U.S. Peace Walker seems to suggest it was, although I'd be interested to hear if this was (or still is) indeed the case.
Another possibility for the choice of the PAL test pattern is the association of "P-A-L" with "Peace At Last". PAL stands for "Phase Alternating Line" but when it was first introduced industry insiders sometimes joked it stood for "Peace At Last" or "Perfect At Last" because of how superior they felt it was to NTSC. Though somewhat oblique as a reference, it seems possible that this was one of the main reasons for the choice of the PAL pattern, since it would give Peace Walker's television motif the same contradictory connotations as the rest of its symbols. If the PAL test pattern simultaneously suggests nuclear attack and "Peace At Last" that seems to fit right in line with Kojima's dualism.
Starting at 6pm this Thursday, lots of Kendall Square tech companies and organizations will be opening their doors and running open houses, including GAMBIT, of course! Tech Night is free and open to the public. Several of the open houses will include special demonstrations, activities and refreshments appropriate for both adults and families.
We're going to keep it pretty chill, put some of our prototype games on the TV, pull out a bunch of board games, and eat a bunch of cookies. I'll give a tour or two, if people are interested. If you want to talk to folks who do game research and development for a living, come join us! We're on the third floor of 5 Cambridge Center. You can play our games here to get an idea about what to expect at our open house.
In our final meeting for the month of March, the prototyping team continued to examine the concept of a game with enemies representing the five senses. Our prototype from the previous week had involved only one enemy and one sense (sight) and was a puzzle that required the player to alter his silhouette with various strange items to disguise himself. This week, we tried adding more enemies (and thus more senses) to the game.
We decided that we wanted to continue with the idea of having an inventory or tool set that the player could use to disguise themselves. This time, though, instead of providing physical items that the player could pick up, we made the protagonist into a shape-shifter, and their inventory was the different characteristics or attributes that they could take on--there were five possible characteristics for each sense, like "triangular" or "square" for sight, "rattly" and "shrill" for hearing, "sticky" or "rough" for touch, and so on. The main idea of the game was that the player has to move across the board while avoiding the five enemies or shape-shifting to disguise themselves from one or more enemies as they moved into range.
Our first iteration divided the game board up into a 4 x 3 grid in which each section of the grid had a set of five characteristics associated with it, one characteristic for each of the five senses. For example, a section might be designated to be "bitter, round, cold, squeaky, and sweet-smelling." Five enemies--each of which had only one sense available to them--moved in set paths about the board, and the player had to try to get from one side of the board to the other without being detected. The player and the enemies moved in turns, and at the end of the player's turn he had to choose three attributes from a list (each attribute had to be from a different sense), and think of an object to shift into that had all the desired attributes (if they were unable to think of an object with the desired attributes, they would have to choose a different set of attributes). For example, if the player's turn ended in the section of the board described above, they might choose to take on the traits "round", "cold", and "sweet-smelling", and declare that they were transforming into key lime pie.
If an enemy ran into the player, the enemy would check to see if the player's current shape matched the section of the board they were in. If the player's shape matched the monster's expectations, then the player would escape detection. However, if the monster detected a trait that didn't fit in the section, or detected no trait all for its particular sense that is, if the player didn't choose a characteristic that corresponded to the monster's sense), the player would be discovered. In the previous example, the player would not be detected by the smelling monster, since they had the "sweet smelling" attribute, but WOULD be detected by the tasting monster, because they don't have the "bitter" attribute. We decided that when the player was detected, they would have to choose one trait from their list to give up forever--that is, for the remainder of the game, they would be unable to transform into an object with that characteristic.
At this stage, the game was still very simple. Our first playtester enjoyed trying to think of objects with the required traits, and found the task both challenging and amusing. However, he felt that having to give up a trait upon discovery didn't seem like enough of a consequence, since it was fairly easy to figure out which traits would be necessary and which could be safely discarded. He also found navigating the board to be too simple, since the obvious strategy was to stick close to the walls to avoid the enemies and there was nothing to prevent the player from doing this.
To address these problems, later versions of the game had more complicated layouts that gave the players more choice or forced the player to backtrack. We also made the grid finer, allowing for more sections with their own distinct sets of associated characteristics, and changed the rules of enemy movement to try to make them less predictable. We hoped that these changes would make navigation less straightforward and would make the choice of which attributes to sacrifice more difficult. Further playtesting revealed that while we were (eventually) somewhat successful in creating a more interesting experience when it came to navigation, players still found it obvious which traits they should give up. In addition, making the enemies' movement patterns clearer meant that it was trivial for the player to decide which three attributes (of the five associated with each section) to take on at every turn, because they could easily predict which enemies would move into range.
On the other hand, all our playtesters liked the overall concept of enemies that represented the five senses, and many of them had a lot of fun trying to come up with objects that would match the set of three traits that they had selected (some of the objects that players came up with were hair gel, ninja stars, rusty drainpipes, and various kinds of pie). The task of future sessions, then, is to build on these aspects that clearly work while we try to solve the problems that our playtesting identified. Clearly we need to make significant changes to what happens after an enemy discovers you, but other possible directions to investigate include: changing the layout so that the player is wandering through rooms of a house rather than simply going from start to finish on a mostly linear path, maybe adding some exploration so that the player only finds out what the required traits of a room are when they enter; revising the shape-shifting system so that instead of giving players a list of characteristics to choose from, we give them a library of objects they can change into, and they have to figure out which ones have the attributes that are needed in a certain area; or adding difficulty to the game by putting in some randomness or adding some real-time sections.
Take advantage of this amazing opportunity to get student game ideas in front of gaming luminaries and Intel game development experts, and to be part of a vibrant gaming community. Student prizes include cash, the latest hardware systems, the newest software packages, and a grand prize pass to the San Francisco Game Developers Conference (GDC).
We encourage student game developers to enter as often as they'd like, to participate, connect, and show their talents. Game concepts can be submitted until June 22, 2010.
Check out this sweet picture from the competition website... that is one badass aeronautical game developer! Alas, he is doggedly committed to his Melvillian quest to hunt down his nemesis, Unallocated Memory Exception.
GAMBIT Researcher and Communications Director Geoffrey Long sits down with GAMBIT U.S. Executive Director, Philip Tan to discuss the history of the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab. A conversation in three parts. Videos produced by Generoso Fierro, Edited by Garrett Beazley. Videos produced in April 2010
The History of The Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab Part 1
Next weekend, Comparative Media Studies will be celebrating its 10th Anniversary! Several generations of CMS alumni and faculty are gathering to discuss where this program has been and where it's going. It's like a multiclass reunion. Most of the events are open to the public, and we've listed them here.
We'll kick things off on 5pm, Thursday, April 22, with GAMBIT PIs and CMS co-directors Henry Jenkins and William Uricchio. Henry will deliver his final address and William will moderate the Communications Forum at Bartos Theater in the I.M. Pei Media Lab building. Given that the last batch of Henry-advised CMS students will be graduating this year, you won't want to miss this.
On Friday, April 23, we'll be at the Maki Fumihiko Media Lab building for a whole day of panel sessions. This means no Friday Games at GAMBIT. Instead, we'll have a whole day of scintillating discussions about the work of CMS and its alums. We'll also be featuring a gallery of alumni work for you to peruse, and GAMBIT will have our games loaded up on our mammoth arcade cabinet. Check out Friday's program after the jump, and do join us!
What: Open Focus testing of Clockwork and carbon emissions game
When: Friday, April 16th, 4 - 6 PM.
Where: The Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab, 5 Cambridge Center, 3rd Floor (and if you speak MIT-building numbers, MIT NE 25, 3rd Floor.) Please introduce yourself as visitors to GAMBIT at the lobby desk when you arrive.
The Clockwork team would like to invite people to come and test their game this Friday. They are looking for video game players, ideally age 10 and up, of all inclinations and interests, to come play their game. Clockwork is a sandbox style evolution simulation game, based on work by Karl Sims.
A freshman team from Terrascope would also like players to test their prototype card game about carbon emissions. The game needs four players, and typically takes one to two hours to learn the rules and finish a full game.
We're looking for opinionated, open minded players; we are hoping to watch you play, and listen to your comments about the game. By finding out what you do - and don't like - about our games, we will them better experiences for everyone. Come in, and let us know how our games play!
We welcome both adults and children, but because we are a research lab, children who wish to test our games must be accompanied by an adult guardian, and bring (or complete on site) a Testing Consent form. Request one from gambit dash qa at mit dot edu, or just fill one out when you get here. It does require a parent or guardian's signature.
Please RSVP to gambit dash qa at mit dot edu, so that we know how many testers to expect.
Following the events of our previous meeting, we decided to branch off in a somewhat different direction. Our black box labyrinth mechanic worked well on its own, but we had reached an impasse as far as incorporating it into a larger system. Matt encouraged us to use the ideas generated in playtesting as a jumping-off point for other game concepts. He also suggested that, as we did with the black box labyrinth prototype, we might consider starting from a fictional premise (like a myth) and try to generate a set of verbs or mechanics that fit with that premise. For this session, we spent a lot of time brainstorming and came up with a wide variety of different games.
We first reexamined the narrative of the labyrinth, turning to the original myth (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minotaur ) for inspiration. We listed possible protagonists associated with the story, as well as verbs that define them.
When Matt reviewed our concepts, he suggested that we might be adhering a little too strictly to the narrative of the myth. He proposed that we instead isolate narrative elements and turn them into mechanics in an otherwise original game. As an example, he described how a game could be made of the Icarus myth simply by adopting the following rules:
1. Use wax and feathers to make wings.
2. Wings allow one to fly.
3. The sun melts wax.
With a few other elements from the myth, such as negotiating with birds for feathers, one could make an engaging game that is simply evocative of, rather than a didactic retelling of, the Icarus story.
We quickly tried brainstorming with other myths and ideas, and came up with the following premises:
1. A game in which you, an office worker, go to work in the morning only to find that your building has turned into a huge labyrinth. Elements from the myth are incorporated, but the myth is never explicitly stated. Perhaps the line between fantasy and reality is blurred - you fight the Minotaur with a stapler, leave post-its to find your way rather than red string, etc.
2. Related to the labyrinth story, we also thought of a variant in which the Minotaur is the player character. There would perhaps be a first-person running segment in which it was not clear that you were playing the Minotaur until the very end. On a more lighthearted note, there could be a fun mechanic where you capture sacrificed youths and eat them. Since the Minotaur will eat only virgins, the youths will invariably tell the Minotaur that they're not virgins. The goal is to interrogate the youths until you're sure that they're lying, a la Phoenix Wright. The game would involve much bluffing about naughty business.
3. A game in which you wake up in a cot in an abandoned hospital, and must drag your IV drip and heart rate monitor around with you. We were thinking of our black box prototype, and how the feeling of a knotted string running through the player's hand evoked a heartbeat. The goal of the game would be to accomplish a task without exerting or frightening yourself too much, as the player has a finite number of "heartbeats" until they die.
4. We recalled a Pre-Colombian myth about a flea trying to deliver an urgent message. As he travels, he comes across a frog who offers to swallow him and continue running so that the message will arrive faster. The frog then comes across a serpent, et cetera, and so on up the food chain until there are ten animals all stacked inside each other. At the destination, each regurgitates the other until the flea emerges intact with the message. As a game, this could be a sidescrolling race in which the object is to find creatures that are larger and faster than you, and avoid ones that are too slow. Certain creative combos could yield greater success. Getting to the end would be fairly simple, but the challenge would come in replaying the game and trying to beat your top score.
5. The last and most fruitful idea we discussed involved the story of Odysseus in the cave of the violent cyclops: Odysseus, trapped in the cave with his men, manages to blind the cyclops with a sharpened stick, but they still have no means of escape, for the cyclops seals the cave entrance with a huge boulder every night. In the morning, when the cyclops lets his flock of sheep out of the cave, he runs his hands over the backs of the sheep to make sure no men are sneaking past. Odysseus, seeing this, ties his men to the undersides of the sheep, and then grabs onto the belly of the biggest sheep with his bare hands. The cyclops is unable to feel the men, and they escape successfully.
We were interested in a stealth game where the enemy only has one (extremely keen) sense. Most stealth games make use of many senses - sight, predominately, but also hearing (of footsteps, sneezing, etc.) and perhaps smell (in Metal Gear Solid 4, Snake would smell foul if he hid in the trash for too long). But we liked the idea of perhaps isolating these senses so that a player had to think creatively in order to disguise himself. For example, getting past an enemy who relies only on touch may require digging through a pile of textiles or debris in order to come up with an outfit that makes you "feel" like a sheep. You can look as ridiculous as possible, but as long as you feel right, you'll succeed.
We also wanted to make the protagonist small in order to preserve the feeling of the original myth and also to challenge the player to use objects in interesting ways - for example, the protagonist can hide himself under a bowler hat or perhaps use a chopsticks like stilts.
Here is a list of the enemies and their senses:
He has a single all-seeing eye. When dealing with vision, it's easy to fall into the rut of simple disguises. But there are ways to innovate with this enemy. One idea involved sneaking in front of a projector, carrying objects that gave you the shape of something that blends in with whatever is being projected (our idea was that the antagonist might be watching a nature film, and so the player would disguise himself as an animal). So while the unblinking Eye Man is watching the screen, he sees a silhouette that seems to belong to the film he's watching and doesn't bother to turn around. Dealing with silhouettes also pushes the player to think creatively, using objects like canes, fans, and salt shakers to make, say, an elephant silhouette.
Some other ideas include optical illusions, colorblindness, or taking advantage of his lack of depth perception. You may also need to visually mimic the behavior of something you're impersonating.
This guy can only hear. Some possibilities for him include using kazoos or buzzers to imitate creatures. Or, perhaps use recordings to make him think something is happening in his house. Maybe you can also record another creature talking, then play back the phrases generated to have a fake conversation with Ear Man. You'd have to pick which recording to play at every conversational juncture, and if the exchange doesn't make sense, he won't buy it (somewhat like the insult duels in Monkey Island).
Maybe you can wear someone's cologne to impersonate them. Or maybe roll around in pepper so that he sneezes when he smells you. Maybe he has bad allergies, and you can use this to your advantage.
This was our trickiest challenge, and we're still hesitant to approach the idea of Tongue Man. You may need to impersonate a bowl of soup, so watch him carefully in the kitchen and see which spices he uses. Maybe he'll try to eat you, but if you cover yourself in thai curry or sriracha, he'll spit you out. Or maybe there's an ingredient missing from his kitchen that'll give you a clue to his least favorite tastes.
Hand man is most similar to the cyclops in the Odyssey, since he tries to feel his way around everywhere. It will be important to blend in to your environment using touch. It may be as simple as hiding under something (a sheep) but you may need to cobble together a "sheep-feeling" outfit from a glove and some q-tips. If you need to protect yourself from him, you'd need something spiky or hot. A sticky thing could trap him.
At the end of this meeting, we began developing a paper prototype of the forming-silhouettes/Eye Man scenario, although it's at an early stage and could still use a good deal of polish. In future sessions, we may try adding one or more other enemies to the scenario, with the hope that the interaction between the sets of rules for each of the senses/enemies will create a more compelling game than any single rule set would do.
I have been a part of the PAX Pox team from the beginning. I was there to witness the game in its earliest stages. Back in the day, the game wasn't initially about spreading quirky infectious diseases. At one point it was about stealing access codes from evil GAMBIT scientists bent on taking over the world. At another, it was about stealing ID numbers and taking over territory from other players. Later on, the game abandoned thievery and domination all together and evolved into a competition to build iconic game characters out of LEGOs. Oh, those were the days! Overly complicated, resource-intensive, how-will-we-even-make-this-work-for-500-people, frustrating days...
It took a lot of time and failure to come up with a presumably straightforward game that could attract at least 200 dedicated players. Many of the earlier iterations really could have been developed into interesting party games for maybe 10+ people. However, the complexity of their systems could not be properly explained without at least 3 pages of rules -absolutely unacceptable to use for a game at PAX East, or any convention for that matter. Because these games couldn't be explained in less than 2 minutes and required a lot of materials or GM time, there was no feasible (or cheap) way to scale these for a large convention space without removing major components of the game.
These conclusions drove us to focus on creating a game where simplicity would be absolutely required. From this and other critical ideas, PAX Pox was born! It has one core game mechanic. It can be explained easily without a pamphlet. Most importantly: it's simple! PAX Pox was quite possibly the most straightforward game I've ever helped to develop. We infected over 4000 people and attracted at least 500 infectors. It was beyond satisfying to walk around the expo hall and see badges covered with infection stickers. PAX Pox was a success! This is why I was so surprised to find out that even with all of our hard work developing a simple and interesting game for PAX convention goers there was an even easier alternative: Pipe cleaners.
Yes, pipe cleaners.
PAX East was made of lines - lines to get in the convention center, lines to go to concerts, and lines to get food. The higher ups at PAX East thankfully were aware of this and designed "line games" to keep the crowd entertained during a 2+ hour wait. One of their games turned out not to be a game at all and just involved giving a large group of adults tons of pipe cleaners. I can't express the sheer joy and excitement people showed when they got their hands on a pack of pipe cleaners. Of course, I shouted with glee like a 5 year old girl when I saw Enforcers tossing them into the crowd. People really took to the pipe cleaners and spent time meticulously weaving head gear, making Companion Cubes, or whatever their imagination called for.
At one point, collaboration entered the mix and we started to trade for different colors. Though, the biggest collaborative event had to be joining together to make an extremely long pipe cleaner chain that stretched to the corners of the waiting room. These cheap artifacts from kindergarten were tapping into the creative conscious of a group of adults and giving them an outlet to interact cooperatively with one another. However, no matter how much fun it was at the time, the pipe cleaners didn't have staying power. Many people left behind their creations once it was time to leave or threw them out later. I packed mine away with the thought of playing with them later, but "later" still hasn't come.
I'm bringing up the pipe cleaners because they present an interesting concept when thinking about designing convention games. Compared to PAX Pox, this was the simplest form of play: hand them out and let the players define their own rules or game. No need for GM-player interaction, score tracking, or even explanations. The problem is that a game which tries to follow this is only as fun as the player allows it. Without a clearly defined goal or structure, there is no incentive for the player to continue with the game or even retain interest. This is where PAX Pox succeeds because even though the awards were buttons and stickers, they still provided some kind of attainable goal for the players. The rules created a space for players to explore and test strategies, while the achievements gave them a way to track personal progress. PAX Pox may not have been as simple as a pack of pipe cleaners, but it was able to create dedicated players that were willing to play the game for all three days of PAX East. This is where PAX Pox succeeds as a convention game. This resilience among players, I have now learned, is something that should be considered as equally important as simplicity when designing convention games.
Worst case scenario, GAMBIT could invest in buckets of Play-Doh and hand them out at the next PAX East...
Research Video Podcast Episode 2: "Towards an Aesthetic of Presence in 3D Avatar-driven Computer Games"
In Episode 2 of this video podcast series, Teun Dubbelman from Utrecht University has been invited to present his recent work entitled " Towards an Aesthetic of Presence in 3D Avatar-driven Computer Games"
Today's post recaps our experience with PAX Pox, a Big Game designed for GAMBIT's presence at the inaugural PAX East. We cover the three main lessons we can take away from our experience and look at how these apply generally to Big Game design.
Lesson 1: Think Big (Okay, Now Bigger)
Because we're talking specifically about Big Games, small-scale play testing generally won't cut it. While these tests can be useful for detecting major design flaws, they're not going to highlight the more subtle issues that plague Big Games. Mental accounting, while difficult, is the best bet for preventing such issues.
Begin by imagining yourself as a GM on game day. Place yourself under the precise conditions of your game and carefully walk through every detail of each step in the process. Got that? Now, start over from the beginning. This time, imagine each step while facing 20 impatient players. Now imagine 50. What changes in each scenario? How are you going to reach those impatient players? Can you distribute your game materials efficiently? Generating answers to these questions may be difficult, but will force you to confront any imprecise elements of your design.
Lesson 2: Know Your Audience
Our game relied heavily on player-to-player recruitment. Our hope was to utilize this to rapidly spread word of our game. In theory, potential players (we'll call them 'primaries') would approach our booth, become Infectors, and infect 24 carriers. Those 24 potentials (we'll call them 'secondaries') would return to our booth, pick up stickers, and infect 24 more carriers each. While we approached this type of explosive growth, we never quite reached numbers it would predict.
The issue here was not with our design, but rather with a failure to fully catalyze the reaction we had set up. When we were first designing PAX Pox, we focused on the primaries. We designed our achievement structure for them, based on the notion that simply recognizing their task completion would sufficiently motivate these self-selecting players. We neglected to note that secondaries, the key component in our exponential equation, were driven to join through entirely different motivators. Most were persuaded either by the promise of swag or by peer pressure from the primaries. Had we considered this, we would have shifted the focus of our achievements away from intrinsic motivators towards more tangible rewards. We also would have put more energy into convincing the more hesitant secondary players to join.
We might have been able to foresee these issues had we dedicated more time to researching our audience. By surveying the PAX forums, we might have noticed how greatly convention-goers valued booth swag. We also could have taken the opportunity to promote our game and built a stronger initial pool of players.
Lesson 3: Avoid Tunnel Vision
In the weeks preceding the convention, it was hard to imagine we would ever get through three days of PAX Pox. This tunnel vision, created by a desire to just get the darn thing over with, caused us to skim over details not necessary for completing the game. Though it's tempting to prioritize tasks solely based on time restraints, project goals should ultimately factor into how tasks are ranked.
The original goal of PAX Pox was to inform players about GAMBIT. Had we kept this at the center of our design, we might have focused more on the social media elements of our game (twitter and Flickr). These might have encouraged our players to keep learning about GAMBIT even after the game had ended. We also could have devoted more energy to involving journalists in our game. These two initiatives fell by the wayside during PAX as we focused on immediate needs rather than long-term goals.
Where to go from here
Looking to the future of PAX Pox, we find ourselves facing two big questions:
How would the game have been played if we hadn't had booth space?
How would the game have been played at Siggraph instead of PAX? How about GDC China?
Interestingly, both questions help address the issues I've described above. Had we asked the first question during the design phase, we might have focused more attention on streamlining the processes that bogged us down during the game's expansion. The second question reminds us to carefully consider audience. What are the motivations of a Siggraph player versus a PAX player? How would the language barrier of GDC China affect us? All these questions highlight details of our game that could have been improved and yet were difficult to spot during the planning process.
I would encourage anyone designing a big game to generate a list of questions that concentrate on how the game would change under various conditions. If our game is any evidence, there are always opportunities to streamline your design.
Friday Games: Jeff Howard - Magick Systems in Theory and Practice
Friday April 9th, 5-7 pm.
GAMBIT TV Lounge
Magick Systems in Theory and Practice
In his talk, Jeff Howard discusses ideas for creating magic systems that are more fun, meaningful, and interactive than those typically seen in many role-playing games. Weaving together examples such as the operatic magic systems of Demon's Souls and the multi-sensory magical language of Eternal Darkness, Howard suggests that the magic systems of the future should draw upon the occult teachings of the past in order to create magical grammars that take input from a variety of sensory modes, including gesture, music, voice, and color. Drawing on many concrete gaming examples, including his game-in-progress Arcana Manor, Howard argues that the total art of opera and the enacted symbolism of contemporary occultist "workings" provide a model for a magical grammar that is connotative rather than purely denotative, i.e. in which gameplay enchants players on multiple levels of emotion and idea.
Jeff Howard is Assistant Professor of Game Development and Design at Dakota State University in Madison, South Dakota. He is the author of Quests: Design, Theory, and History in Games and Narratives. He received his B.A. from the University of Tulsa and his M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin. He is currently working on a game-in-progress, Arcana Manor, and related research about magic systems.
Today's post will take you through the unique challenges and goals we considered while designing PAX Pox. For each, I'll provide a quick summary of why it was important and what kind of impact it had on our final product. We'll go into more detail in our post mortem, but for now we'll try to stick to the big picture. Though the details described herein are fairly specific to our game, the issues addressed by each have the potential to arise in any Big Game setting.
Let's begin by taking a quick peek at the goals that defined PAX Pox. These were established at the onset of our project and shaped the major elements of our design.
Anyone should be able to play
The game should last all three days
The game should appeal to nontraditional gamers (especially journalists)
The game should get people to come to our booth
The game should get people talking about GAMBIT
The game should not have a lose condition
The game cannot disrupt non-players' enjoyment of PAX
While many of these goals were fairly straightforward (we wanted people to come to the booth) they began to set the tone for our game to be all-inclusive and pervasive. They also pushed us to consider a viral-style of game play, an element of our design that would ultimately carry over to our fiction as well.
From here, we began to consider the unique design challenges we would have to consider to produce a Big Game. They are as follows:
Control over game space
Managing GM Load
Availability of alternative activities
Design time limit
Our game, like any big game, needed to be playable anywhere at any time. However, we had little to no control/ownership over the space outside our 20'x20' booth. Additionally, due to our relatively small team, Game Managers (GMs) needed to be minimally involved in play. These two conditions forced us to continually simplify our model and motivated us to create a game that could spread from player-to-player independently from GMs.
We knew that PAX would offer countless distractions, so players needed to be able drop in and out at will. Due to time constraints and a general lack of availability of Wifi/3G in the expo hall, technology had to be kept to a minimum. These issues compelled us to eschew complex scoring systems in favor of simple, low-tech alternatives. They also kept us from closing off players who might have limited access to technology or other responsibilities to attend to during PAX.
The most important challenge was to create a system that could scale between 10 and 1,000 players. This meant we had to iteratively simplify every aspect of our game from how we explained our game to how we produced our materials. In the end, this forced us to strip any unnecessary or arbitrary components from our game.
These elements were at the forefront of our design for the entirety of the process. However, as with any project, we recognize that there are many things we could have improved. My next post will address the three main lessons we can draw from our experience at PAX and how we might approach these issues in future Big Game design.
The lab will be supporting our grad students in their thesis presentations today. This means there won't be any Friday Games at GAMBIT at the lab today, but if you're near the MIT Campus, you can drop in!
You can also watch it on live streaming video here.
Over the course of three days at PAX East 2010, 623 Certified Infectors spread four strains of PAX POX to 4428 people. On Sunday, we cured 1836 people with our +1 HP magic.
The student designers and GMs for the PAX POX project will be posting more details about the creation and running of the PAX POX game, along with downloadable versions of all of our materials, so anyone can run either this game, or a modified version, on their own.
For a glimpse in the day-by-day activities of GAMBIT at PAX East, check out these videos produced by Official GAMBIT Documentarian (and Outreach Coordinator) Generoso Fierro. You might notice a common theme at the beginning and end of each.
Day 1: PAX POX breaks out at the GAMBIT Island at PAX EAST 2010
DAY 2: PAX POX Infects 3,200 @ The GAMBIT Island at PAX EAST 2010!
DAY 3, PAX POX Must Now Be Cured @ The GAMBIT Island at PAX EAST 2010
For downloadable versions of these videos, plus other videos created at the GAMBIT Game Lab, check out our page on MIT's Tech TV.
The inaugural PAX EAST 2010 is now over! This was our beloved GAMBIT Game Lab's very first public exhibition at a US game conference and all in all it was an excellent experience. That said, after all of the kiosks have been rapidly dismantled and all of our Mac Minis have been stowed away, I feel the need to share some of the best and worst of what can happen at such an event... So, as I am glass is half full kind of person lets begin with:
A) The PAX POX GAME: GAMBIT created a game over the semester specifically for this PAX EAST conference that was a huge success. A game about infection vectors and hygiene set in the temporary community that formed around the PAX East 2010 attendees, PAX POX was commended by PAX officials for helping to create an identity for this conference. "Wii-Coli" and "Dance Dance Restless Leg Syndrome" carriers went through the hall infecting game fans of all ages with stickers of their respective diseases.
B) The PAX ENFORCERS: So hardworking and proactive while being cheerful and resourceful, these PAX EAST volunteers saved us countless times by getting us everything from extra ethernet cables to a bizarrely needed PS2 keyboard (don't ask) to helping us fight off the forces of evil (more on that later). Much praise to all of them, especially Ryan (the pirate pictured here), Nakki (aka Lisa) and Jonah!
C) The LIGHTING and HEIGHT and PADDED CARPET of The GAMBIT ISLAND: Located towards the rear of the last conference hall, the GAMBIT island needed a bit of an edge to get seen, so we raised our circular banner high above our tower and Len with the help of Design Light gave us the edge needed to be seen from anywhere in the hall. Once the GAMBIT Island was located by attendees, the lights really brought out the mad scientist motif, complete with Oscilloscope, Van De Graf Generator and multiple video screens that defined the GAMBIT space. An open bright space with a wonderfully padded carpet (not a luxury if you're standing on it for ten hours) that many described as an oasis away from the loud, dark corporate islands that usually permeate an expo floor.
D) The GAMBIT STAFF and UROPS: Last but not least, the GAMBIT staff and UROPs were engaging, friendly and tireless. Whether they were showing off our games at the six kiosk stations or explaining the intricacies of the PAX POX game, they were sensational. Combine that with a glowing lab coat, they made GAMBIT a fun place to be.
A) WELCOME TO FRAT ISLAND: If your island is next to a large shiny road trip van, packed with loud fraternity rejects and "booth babes" who appear to sign their paychecks with crayons then you may want to contact the head of the event and have them stopped before they start up. Everything from throwing objects onto your island from the roof of their van to hearing "More Than a Feeling" blasted ten times louder than any classic rock song should ever be heard, these dinosaurs of a medical trade show from 1973 should not be invited back to PAX if they (PAX) expect to taken seriously by the modern game community.
B) STORAGE, ANYONE?: We just didn't have enough storage space so bags and coats and even skateboards filled the back of our island which didn't make for a good look and nearly impossible to get in and out of our sole cabinet where our PAX POX giveaways were kept. Next time we will work in some kind of fake power generator that is actually a locker in disguise.
C) STATIC ELECTRICITY IS NOT A MAD SCIENTIST PROP: IT'S REALLY ANNOYING!: Was it the padded carpet? The dormant Van De Graf generator? The LEDs in our lab coats? Well, whatever it was it was driving us insane. For the three days at PAX, touching a computer, a cupcake or a coworker became some new kind of bizarre weird torture. Frankly, that should be the next UROP project here at GAMBIT, "grounding the static electricity at your game island".
D) THE BATTLE FOR BEING HEARD: Regardless of the above mentioned "Frat Island", PAX was a loud place! So, getting your voice heard while explaining a game was difficult above the glam metal, screaming crowds and giveaway raffles. How do we remedy this? Not sure but maybe fighting fire with fire may have been appropriate. Basically, GAMBIT could've been just a tad louder.
Good, bad or otherwise, PAX EAST 2010 was a great experience; one that tested the cohesiveness and resolve of our lab and gave the gaming community their first public glimpse into all that is GAMBIT.
The faculty over at the National University of Singapore (NUS) have made some modifications to Shadow Shoppe, in which you help a town recover their lost shadows. They've added some new shadows and traits, and now we need lots of people to play their version!
So if you've got a couple of minutes to kill, why not play a Flash game and help out university research?
You may already be familiar with Shadow Shoppe, the game prototype we made last summer. We featured it at Games Convention Asia and some of you may have played it at PAX East. A few months ago, we exchanged code and assets with the researchers at NUS so that they could adapt it for their purposes. They're using the game to collect data on how different people associate character traits with body shapes. By playing the game, you are actually helping researchers better understand cultural differences in character design and visual aesthetics!
This does mean that we're collecting information on your choices during the game, but we're careful to make sure that the data we're collecting doesn't personally identify you in any way. Basically, you'll have to enter your age, your gender, and where you're from before you start the game. That's it, and any other information that we could track (IP address, for instance) isn't recorded in any way.