• "In another view, the "true Spelunky" is the live-streamed experience, both for broadcaster and spectator. Spelunky – as a concept, as an experience, as an entity — isn't just the game binary that you download onto your computer. It's also the Twitter banter about the game; it's the daily slog to get better at the game, slowly but surely, death after death; it's the communal effort to uncover new exploits and weird secrets; it's something that's equally "ours" as it is Mossmouth's. Spelunky, like any sport or game that matters — I mean really matters — is inseparable from the culture around it." Doug Wilson's analysis of Bananasaurus Rex's Solo Eggplant Run makes a great late contender for games writing of the year. It's precise, expert, and yet exciting, all at once; it demystifies and celebrates all at once. Great stuff.

Skate 2: Sharing play experience done right

28 April 2009

Me, skating virtually.

I’ve written about Skate before, in the context of designing online games for a generation of players used to a world where they are in control, and where everything is shareable. Writing last year, I said:

I find Skate exciting because it’s a prime example of a game that understands Generation C; it allows players to share game-information outside the game – and in a manner that is so much more easily referenced, due to it having a permanent link – just as they share movies, photos, and blogposts.

The original Skate had an impressive community website, for sharing screengrabs and videos. It wasn’t without faults, though – it was very difficult to permalink to, as every request to Reel (the video-sharing community) first asked you what country you were in, and then redirected you to a homepage, rendering the permalink useless.

How refreshing, then, to see the improvements made to the new Reel site for Skate 2, released at the beginning of this year. Now, permalinks are encouraged – here’s an example – but the concessions to creative end-users go several steps further.

Once you’ve uploaded a video, Reel not only lets you view it and share it with friends, but also now provides proper good embed code, making it trivially easy to re-contextualise the video on your own site. Even more remarkably, though, Reel allows you to download the FLV (flash video format) file for the video, so you can upload it somewhere else – Youtube, Flickr, Revver, wherever you store your video. Here’s a video of me skating a short session – just click on it to watch:

They let you download the FLV! That’s brilliant. Because, you see, even though Reel is good, it’s not where my friends are; my friends are on Youtube and Flickr. When the first game was out, smart Skate-rs wanting to upload their videos to Youtube had to rip the FLV file by peeking into the source of the page; now, EA are enabling them to do that licitly. The file is, after all, still watermarked with the Skate 2 logo, still understood as a fragment of that product – so what if somebody wants to tweak it in iMovie or Windows Movie Maker, or cut it into a best-of compilation, or re-upload it to Youtube? They created the content, and so they should be free to do what they want with it.

The web facilitates and encourages this – the FLV file was always present, it was just obfuscated. By adding an explicit download link, EA demonstrate that they understand not only the fact that you want to share your footage, but also the reasons why you might want to share it, and also that they understand their place in the ecology of the web. They’ve provided the hard part: exporting video from a 360 or PS3 to the web. Now, you should be free to do what you want with it.

EA have even released a downloadable pack with more advanced cameras for filming replays – cameras that can track and follow motion-controlled patterns, for instance. Whilst you could argue that this functionality should have been free, it’s interesting to note an add-on for a game that’s about creativity and sharing, rather than gameplay – and more interesting to note that as well as providing more tools, the “filmer pack” also bumps the amount of video you can store online nearly four-fold.

The Reel site for Skate 2 is a great example of the enabling of permanence, and ‘going where people are”, that I discussed in my talks at NLGD and Develop last year. It’s also an interesting example of the kind of social play that’s much more common than simultaneous, co-operative play – namely, the sharing of play experiences around or after the fact; the objects that emerge out of play. That’s something I talked about at Playful last year (and which, I discover, shamelessly isn’t online yet. Will rectify that soon!) As ever, it’s always exciting to see real-world, big-money, examples of good practice in action. And, as a bonus: here’s my profile on Reel.

(I’ve been meaning to write this post for ages, and it’s been sitting in my draft folder for way too long. If in doubt: just release it into the world)

  • "In the 14 months since [TeamFortress 2] shipped, the PC version of the game has seen 63 updates – “that’s the frequency you want to be providing updates to your customers,” [Newell] adds. “You want to say, ‘We’ll get back to you every week. The degree to which you can engage your customer base in creating value for your other players” is key, says Newell. “When people say interesting or intelligent things about your product, it will translate directly into incremental revenue for the content provider.”" Great write-up from Chris Remo of Gabe Newell's DICE talk.
  • "This is a sort of thorough, empirical, sociological study of art students at two British art schools at a very interesting moment, the late 1960s (a moment when, as the book says, anti-art became the approved art, bringing all sorts of paradoxes to the fore). I find it fascinating that such a subjective thing as developing an art practice can be studied so objectively, but then I find it amazing that art can be taught at all. The book shows the tutors and students circling each other with wariness, coolness, misunderstanding, despair, appreciation." Some great anecdotes and observation.
  • "Busker Du (dial-up) is a recording service for buskers through the telephone (preferably public payphones hidden in subway stations). Audio recorded will be posted to this audio-blog and made available to all who cherish lo-fi original music. Try it out at your favorite subway station or street corner." Dial-A-Song comes full circle.
  • "Poole – HAL 9000 is a fictional chess game in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. In the movie, the astronaut Frank Poole is seen playing chess with the HAL 9000 supercomputer… The director Stanley Kubrick was a passionate chess player, so unlike many chess scenes shown in other films, the position and analysis actually makes sense. The actual game seems to come from Roesch – Schlage, Hamburg 1910, a tournament game between two lesser-known masters."
  • Lovely demo – some interesting interfaces that feel quicker than current alternatives, as well as experimental ones that, whilst slower and clumsier, represent information a bit better. I mainly like the form-factor, though – but what's the unit cost? These things get a lot better the more you have.
  • "Something like: Trying to create a reading list that gives the best introduction to everything. This may change." Phil is trying to collect the Good Books in many fields. It's an interesting project, for sure; it'll also be interesting to see how it pans out.
  • I was a little excited from the ongoing Offworld love in, but Oli Welsh's review suddenly makes me insanely excited about Keita Takahashi's new plaything. Why is it that all the reasons for me wanting a £300 PS3 are £3 PSN titles?
  • "…the biggest consequence [of a universal micro-USB adaptor] will be the ease of transferring data/content from street service provider to consumer, and consumer to consumer… There is a place at the edges of the internet where the level of friction makes content and data grind to a halt. It's largely unregulated. And it just got seriously lubed."
  • "30 Second Hero is an action RPG which consists of really short battles that require no interaction, as players race against the clock to save the kingdom from an evil wizard's wrath. As indicated by the title, you only have thirty seconds to level up your character sufficiently for the final battle, although additional time can be bought from the castle at the cost of a hundred gold pieces per increment of ten seconds." Hectic; the entire early JRPG genre (FF1, et al) condensed into a minute-long rush. Grinding as poetry.
  • "I was convinced that it was a spoof. As if there’d be a genre called Donk. Everything is wrong about the video. The knowing subtitles over subtle Northern Accents. The presenter’s slight grin when he’s chatting to folk. The funnily named shops. Everything. There’s no way I’m falling for a prank like that. It reminds me heavily of the episode of Brass Eye where they whang on about Cake (the made up drug). And all the characters and the interviews look like they could be setups or clever edits." But no, it's real. Iain Tait discovers Donk.
  • "…with that sad note from Sarinee Achavanuntakul, one of the most enduring (if illegal) tributes to gaming history came to an end." Home of the Underdogs is no more; just gone, like that. It wasn't that it had the best games or the worst games, or that they were illegal, or free; it was history, and childhood, and the smell of cardboard and boot disks, all wrapped up in one giant cathedral to Good Old Games. Most things I played on my old DOS machine were there. A shame; I hope they're elsewhere. This is why we need proper game archives.
  • Tweaking a game five months after launch to make it both more playable, and also more realistic; understanding that realism is key to NHL09 fans, and delivering on that as an ongoing promise.
  • "Warcraft’s success has always been substantially due to the extraordinary physicality of Azeroth, to the real sense of land transversed, of caves discovered, and of secrets shared. Players old and new bemoan the endless trudging that low-level travel requires, but it’s crucial for binding you to the world." Yes. Despite QuestHelper, I'm always in awe of the new areas. I just wish more people were playing the game as slowly and badly as me. Another beautiful One More Go, and one that resonates a lot right now.

Skate: Gaming for Generation C

05 January 2008

skate-pic.jpg

I’ve been meaning to talk about EA’s Skate for a while.

Skate is a wonderful game. Whilst the Tony Hawk games plough ever-deeper furrows of furious button-mashing combos, EA decided to go for a more “realistic” route with their skateboarding game. The controls are the most obvious example of this: rather than using buttons to correspond to moves, they use the analogue controls on the board to correspond to the rider’s body: the left stick is your body, the right your feet; the two shoulder buttons are two hands.

To Ollie, you flick the right stick from neutral, to down, to up. To kickflip it’s neutral to down to up/left or up/right. To manual – rolling on only the front or rear set of wheels – you have to find a sweet-spot on the right stick and not move it to neutral or an extremity; as in life, it’s a balance problem. Here’s a more detailed look at the “Flickit” trick scheme.

Couple that approach with a somewhat heavier gravity than Hawk ever had, and you end up with a wonderful simulation of skateboarding. It places the focus not on huge chain-combos (a “videogamey” aesthetic if ever there was one) but on simple, stylish maneuvers that look cool. It’s very satisfying to pull off a simple flip-to-grind, as long as the line is good and you look good doing it. All of a sudden, the focus shifts from points, to just how good you can look navigating the city (a fictional hybrid called “San Vanelona”).

So far, so good. But for me, the most interesting thing about the game is what happens when the game breaks out of the console and into the world.

skate2.jpg

In order to capture stylish runs and painful bails, EA included an impressive video editor, which makes it easy to alter film-processing and speed effects to mimic the immediately recognisable skate-video aesthetic.

And these videos can be shared with friends. And not just by forwarding them over Xbox Live; no, you can shoot a video in-game, and then – from your console (PS3 or 360) – upload it to the web. EA have a dedicated site for this, called Reel. Like any Web 2.0 product, Reel is still in beta (perhaps giving it a more “authentic” feel), and it effectively functions as a miniature Youtube for the game.

Here’s a short clip of a through-flip hosted on Reel. You can see some of the film effects in play. And remember: this clip was made in a videogame, uploaded from a console, and now exists as an embedded flash movie on a webpage, with the potential to be tagged, commented, and linked to.

And EA really want people to use this. If you look at the Achievements list for the game (Achievements being a way of rewarding players for impressive, or unusual behaviour in-game), you can see that amongst the usual score and skill challenges, there are achievements for uploading videos and photos, and even one for getting at least 20 people to view your video on the web.

Think about that for a second: you get an achievement for the behaviour of other people who aren’t in the game-world at the time.

I find Skate exciting because it’s a prime example of a game that understands Generation C; it allows players to share game-information outside the game – and in a manner that is so much more easily referenced, due to it having a permanent link – just as they share movies, photos, and blogposts. Other games that “get” this include Halo 3, which lets you upload and share screengrabs, movies, and even custom game-rules (although you can only view screengrabs online), and the Project Gotham and Forza games, which have a very detailed photo mode; here’s some of my virtual photographs from PGR3.

It’s also great to see EA understanding the ethos of the real-world skate community. Skating has always been a community with a huge user-generated aspect; bootleg and home-made skate videos have been a huge part of the scene, and so to attempt to digitally recreate the community (and not just the activity) is a really interesting move.

Skate has been almost universally praised, but it doesn’t feel like it’s done as well as it could have. That’s a shame, because in many ways, it’s one of the more innovative “major league” titles of last year. For the reasons above, I thought it was worth bringing to the attention of the many people interested in this terrain who don’t necessarily play console games.

Far Cry: Instincts and viral social networks

03 October 2005

So at the weekend I picked up Far Cry: Instincts. It’s a very good game – pushes the Xbox graphically in ways you couldn’t dream (trumping even Riddick) and has a great fun set of multiplayer modes.

What’s really interesting, though, is that it has an excellent mapmaker. Far from letting you just move around tiles, it lets you mould terrain, build structures, and plan complex maps – and then play them online with your friends. It’s been really well designed – the controls are superbly mapped to the Xbox pad. It still takes a while to make a map, but it’s not tricky to make some quite complex ones.

Anyhow. When you’ve made a map, you “publish” it – this doesn’t upload it anywhere, it just seems to verify it with your online name (Gamertag, in Xbox parlance). And then you can host games with your friends, with your map. They will, of course, have to download it from you, but that takes a few minutes, and then everyone can play.

Here’s where it gets clever. When they come to host a game, they’ll find your map – which they just downloaded – is on their list of maps. So they can host a game with the map you created. And if it’s a good map, they may well do.

And so then everyone they play with gets to use your map. And so, if you’ve created something really good, it’s going to spread virally very quickly; players will say “this map is good, man, you should play it”. At its logical conclusion, as many people will have your map as the ones the game comes with, and then you’ve entered canon. Wheras PC games (which are usually very moddable) have a distribution network of the Internet, Xbox games don’t have the same freedom for downloading new content. So Ubisoft should be applauded for letting the players become one big viral network, in which they ‘catch’ maps off one another.

The game’s online implementation has the customary Ubisoft online flaws, but in terms of how easy it is to make brand new content – and, more to the point, how easy it is for that content to propagate based purely on merit – it’s really something special. I can’t wait to see what happens when the map-makers get really good…