Sitting in the Cosmodrome

30 July 2014

Destiny

That’s me, sitting on the ground in the Cosmodrome in Old Russia.

The Cosmodrome is an environment from Bungie’s Destiny. I played it during its public beta last week.

One of my favourite things in Destiny is its sit down button.

The directional pad is used to ‘emote’ in a very limited manner in the game. Two of the emotes are very specifically non-verbal forms of communication, useful for players without headsets: you can wave, either into space or at another player, and you can point. I used these quite a lot with both strangers and friends.

One of them is daft self expression: the dance button. This is probably the most popular emote; it feels like many players hadn’t played enough MMOs to have had their fill of daft emotes, and so the idea that one can just dance – not just on your own, but with other people – for no reason other than you’d like to is a new and exciting one.

It’s actually how dancing ought to be, when you think about it: a fun thing you can do whenever. There was lots of dancing in Destiny.

My absolute favourite emote, though, is sitting. And the main reason for that is the sitting down animation.

If pushed, I’ll take the female sitting down animation over the male one for one simple reason. Male characters look more like they’re sitting down to kill time, staring either into their hands, or just above them – it’s hard to tell, and it feels critical. It’s how you might sit by a campfire with friends (if you were looking up) or in a dreary queue for a gig or festival (if you’re looking down).

The female characters, though, always look like they’re sitting down to look at something. Which is so apt, for Destiny; the skyboxes and vistas the game presents (when it’s not throwing Dregs and Thralls at you) are beautiful. They’re the sort of things you want to take in with friends; pass time watching the day-night cycle. I love seeing the massed Guardians in the Tower, all sitting at the edge, watching the clouds roll across the sky. What are they doing? What are they talking about in their Fireteams and Private Parties?

The idea that sitting is active – that you might sit to do something with your friends, not to indicate an absence of activity – is a lovely thing to be reminded of. It applies tenfold – no, far more, hundredfold at the very least – to the world outside Destiny.

I like that my Guardian reminds me of this every time she sits down.

But sitting down also had a functional purpose for me: I’d also sit down in Destiny to indicate I’d wandered away from my games console.

There’s no pause button in Destiny – it’s always online – but there are enough quiet areas of a map, especially when you’ve cleared out enemies, that you can just sit down and wander away with few ill results. You might even discover how lenient Destiny’s respawning is (as long as you’re not in a Darkness zone).

I was playing with some New York friends at the weekend. They were playing pass-the-pad, and I was on my own. They didn’t have a headset, so we IM’d on our phones to explain the things we couldn’t show with a point or a wave.

Could we pause 30 secs while I put the kettle on,” asks my friend. And why not? There’s nothing around threatening. I say that I’ll go and do the same and wave when I’m back.

I push down on the d-pad, and I/my Guardian sit(s) down for a break. I wander into the kitchen to make tea and toast.

I’d been meaning to write about how much I liked the sitting in Destiny – the “looking into space” aspect of it. And today, somebody else reminded me the other reason that its sitting felt important to me.

Jenn Frank is right when she describes how infuriating her husband’s behaviour is when confronted with a game that has no pause button.

She’s entirely right to be annoyed. Reading her post, I recognised a kind of bad behaviour it’s easy to slip into – and remembered what I used to do about it.

I know that whilst online games of all shapes and sizes encourage you to keep playing – and have no pause button – they also have a reasonable number of safeguards against it in their systems. Or, at least, they should. World of Warcraft has towns, safe from attack; PVE servers, where other players aren’t a threat. Lots of ways to park your character (although not, say, in dungeons or raids, just as all the multiplayer shooters I played lock you in for the scope of a single game). I had no idea how anybody played on a PVP server – it seemed to require permanent, always-on concentration.

Back in the months I played WoW, whenever I wandered away or alt-tabbed for a bit, I’d make sure my character sat down, showing the world they were absent. A little bit of playacting – something better than afk.

I’m glad it still works in 2014.

You can do it almost anywhere. Take a step back. Find a quiet corner. Down on the d-pad. Your Guardian will sing a campfire song, and you can sign that rental agreement, hold the step-ladder to the loft, and talk to your relatives on the phone.

Sit the heck down.

  • "Beer comes before agriculture. Gardens too. There are too many generational steps involved between grasses in their natural form and wheat worth harvesting for agriculture to be the thing people were shooting for when they domesticated plants. Drugs and beer and pretty flowers, on the other hand, can be made from a single generation of garden from wildflowers.

    We talk all the time about data visualizations and maps that are useful. We don't talk at all about data visualizations and maps that delight you and make you laugh. We should." Yes, Eric.

  • "Use PiP to show video from any webcam on your screen, nicely integrated as "Picture in Picture" which makes it ideal for live presentations, screencast recordings and in the educational sector." Or filming your hands…
  • "In this post, I want to pay tribute to my favorite “games” of 2012 – specific performances, instances, and events that really meant something to me. The list is admittedly idiosyncratic, subjective, and a little self-indulgent. And that’s the way it should be, I feel (um, unless you’re a journalist or something), because games, at their best, are deeply personal affairs. Games generate memories, and I want to share some of mine with you." Doug is smart.
  • "I think it’s valuable to have an understanding of assembly language. Assembly language is the lowest level of abstraction in computers – the point at which the code is still readable. Assembly language translates directly to the bytes that are executed by your computer’s processor. If you understand how it works, you’ve basically become a computer magician." I don't, and this looks like a lovely way to learn. Also: I think I finally get this. Nine-year-old me sure didn't.

Playable City shortlist announced

14 December 2012

I spent a couple of days a few weeks ago working with PAN Studio on their proposal for Watershed’s Playable City project. I’m excited to announce that PAN (working with myself and Gyorgyi Galik) have been shortlisted for the competition, with their project Hello, Lamppost. You can find out more about the project here.

It’s an exciting shortlist – lots of friends, peers, and former colleagues on it – which really captures the breadth of thinking around play in the urban landscape right now. Final results are announced on 21st January; we’ll wait to see what happens next. Congratulations to everyone on the shortlist.

  • "Three design principles from Lego CEO Jorgen Vig Knudstorp: When it’s advertised does it make a child say: ‘I want this!’? Once he opens the box, does it make him go: ‘I want more of this’? One month later, does he come back to the toy and still play with it? Or does he put it on the shelf and forget about it?" Useful for things that aren't toys, too.

Little Clockwork Worlds

21 July 2012

Spelunky is a little clockwork world in which items and enemies behave in defined ways, but when mixed together cause a delicious feedback loops that you can, with experience, predict. My boy loves systemic games like this, games that are built on coherent systems that you can play in an open-ended way. Toy boxes like Minecraft and Plants Vs Zombies, Animal Crossing and (we play this together) Civilization – where he can tinker and learn cause and effect.

He spends hours playing them, or would if we let him. And these are the kind of games that, though they were much cruder back then, I liked when I was a boy too, especially Elite. Where anything seemed possible.

But the big games today, in which play comes fixed to immutable stories, aren’t like that. So I asked him: “Do you like games that tell stories that you follow as you play them, or do you like games that let you do what you want?”

“The second one.” My heart burst with pride.

Last Day Of School, from lovely chum Alex Wiltshire.

The big computer games I grew up with – the ones that made an impression – were Rogue, Prince of Persia, and countless flight sims (beginning with MS Flight Simulator 3.0 then 4.0, and then getting steadily less realistic through the MicroProse back catalogue). And there, really, is a lot of the things I like: deep systems, short repeated play sessions, complex things to master, coupled t worlds to do whatever you want in. I got to about level 14 of the dungeons of Yendor; I landed a Cessna 182 on a Nimitz class carrier without an arrestor wire (only just) and took it around the Michigan bay; I explored the deep 60-minute run/jump mechanics of Mechner’s early triumph.

My tendency to simplification as I grew up has a lot to recommend it – in particular, desigining for sofas or tiny bursts – but my heart swells too when I see the conversations Alex and his son have. Not just because of what they like – but because of how they like it, and, most importantly, how they talk about it together.

  • "The real Grim Meathook Future, the one I talked about back when I wrote that thing and the one I see now, is the future where a relatively small slice of our species lives in a sort of Edenic Eloi reality where the only problems are what we laughingly refer to as White People Problems, like being able to get four bars’ worth of 4G signal at that incredible pho joint that @ironicguy69 recommended on Twitter, or finding new ways to lifehack all the shit we own into our massive closets…while the rest of the world is reduced to maintaining our lifestyles via a complex process of economically-positioned indentured servitude and clinging with the very tips of their fingernails onto the ragged edge of our consumer leavings, like the dorky dude who shows up the first day of school with the cheap K-Mart knockoffs of the pumped-up kicks the cool kids are wearing this year. In other words, the Grim Meathook Future is the one that looks like the present, the one where nothing changes."
  • "In my philosophy, Street Fighter is a game, but really it's a tool. It's like playing cards or chess or tennis: it's really about the people. Once you know the rules it's up to the players to put themselves in the game, to choose the nuance of how they play and express themselves. I think fighting games flourish because it was this social game. If it had been a purely single-player thing, it would never have grown so popular."