• "But imagine if the writer came up with a "story" before the rules.  A "pre-rules story."  At that point, you could create the rules around that story, and even if the rules seemed unconventional or unbalanced, you could be confident that they would work as long as the story works." Erm, not really; crap rules are crap rules, even if they make sense within the story. This paragraph directly contradicts his previous (accurate) paragraph, that stories must follow the rules of the game. To then say: "but we can retrofit rules onto the story if the latter was done first" just feels wrong. One more thing on my pile of "stuff about rules".
  • "Cheating is hacking for the masses. It is one of many opportunities to ‘soft programme’ our technologies and culture without heavy reliance on advanced knowledge. Cheating creates an opportunity to play with design, think about it, and tinker around. By effectively unbalancing a game, we can move behind the screen to consider games through their limits. If you put too many assets on screen with the Sonic debug mode, the system would freeze and crash. In this it taught young players an important truth about games; that they aren’t infinite systems, but rather careful gestures reliant on an economy of elements. Cheats of the kind seen in Sonic fostered a generation of gamers to be both critical and respectful of what games are. Knowing that the level is one configuration among many comes from a point of view only afforded through cheating." David Surman is writing more about games, and it is a good thing.
  • "…even if they make the rules explicit, it’s not going to help the “power-leveling problem” which is ostensibly the reason for all of this grief. Unless they remove all difficulty options from the system, there will always be easier and harder ways to level. And remember what I said above: users tend to prefer easier content with better rewards. This isn’t limited to user-created content — it’s true for designer-made content, also. But designer-made quests don’t get graded by the players. Player-voted content like this will always gravitate towards easy. And pick-up groups will always be picking the most rewarding content with the least annoyance. And the game devs will keep being unhappy about it." Smart analysis of the problems with City of Heroes' user-generated missions.
  • "Games don't separate learning from assessment. They don't say "Learn some stuff, and then later we'll take a test." They're giving you feedback all the time about the learning curve that you're on. So, they're not the only solution to this problem by any means, but they're a part of the solution of getting kids in school to learn not just knowledge as facts, but knowledge as something you produce; and in the modern world you produce it collaboratively." Jim Gee is a smart guy. I need to read more on him.
  • "I suggested that, when it comes to the design of embodied interactive stuff, we are struggling with the same issues as game designers. We’re both positioning ourselves (in the words of Eric Zimmerman) as meta-creators of meaning; as designers of spaces in which people discover new things about themselves, the world around them and the people in it."
  • "Statisticians’ sex appeal has little to do with their lascivious leanings … and more with the scarcity of their skills. I believe that the folks to whom Hal Varian is referring are not statisticians in the narrow sense, but rather people who possess skills in three key, yet independent areas: statistics, data munging, and data visualization. (In parentheses next to each, I’ve put the salient character trait needed to acquire it)."
  • Ron Gilbert plays The Secret Of Monkey Island again, and takes notes. Nicely measured – neither grumpy nor jubilant, it reads like an interesting director's commentary. Good stuff.
  • "This week I've killed Steven Spielberg three dozen times. I'm feeling better about the whole thing now, so I'm not going to vent any more steam about his increasingly asinine – and frankly pretty arrogant – repetition of the 'games won't be important until they can make you cry, which up until now they haven't been able to, but don't worry I've come to fix things' line." Which, you know, is good, because it means Margaret can talk about the joy of cubes instead. Or Cube, to give him his proper name. A wonderful One More Go, this week.

This is Rose Ball:

To explain what’s going on:

this is Street Fighter IV, in practice mode versus mode. Both players are handicapped so they have a pixel of health, and both have selected Rose as their character. They are playing best of 9. At the beginning of each round, one of them “serves” by performing Rose’s “Soul Spark” move – a half-circle towards on the joystick, and a punch button. Then, they take it in turns to perform her “Soul Reflect”, which can reverse projectiles; this is a quarter-cirlce away on the stick, with a punch button. Whoever fails to time the parry correctly will get hit by the “ball”, and the other player will win the round.

So: they’re playing Pong, inside Street Fighter IV.

This is clearly awesome.

What I like most is that it’s consensual – there’s nothing to stop one of them just walking over and pounding the other player, bar good conduct. The game of Rose Ball only works if you both play fair. Later in the game, you’ll see one player move closer to the other, upping the difficultly of the game, as there’s less time to parry the ball.

It’s always interesting to see consensual games like Rose Ball emerge from other games. An obvious corollary is Cat and Mouse in the Project Gotham series; whilst it was a player-derived, consensual mode in PGR2, by the third and fourth games in the series, it turned into a fully fledged game mode.

See also some of the new consensual gameplay modes that people have made for Halo 3 – the four-team, eight-player racing game that is Rocket Race, or Grifball, the two-team ballgame that’s hugely popular online.

Consensual play – breaking the “official” rules in an agreed manner – is something that always emerges when you give players rule-based systems such as videogames. Few systems are robust enough to make it worthwhile, though. Cat and Mouse is quite fragile if someone doesn’t understand the rules; by contrast, the Halo 3-derived games are much more robust, as there’s more customisation of the rule-system available to players. These kind of games are important, though, because they require no modification or custom code, no downloads or installation; they’re just new layers of player-generated rules on top of pre-existing, developer-designed rules.

And: they usually turn out to be lots of fun, because anything that can survive the mill of hundreds, perhaps thousands of Xbox Live players playing – and refining – it is probably pretty good.

Hence the survival of Cat and Mouse into a canon game mode; hence the popularity of Griffball. And Rose Ball? I think that’s going to stay a novelty for relatively skilled players, but it’s still nice to know that such a thing is possible within systems like SF4.

  • "…kids are utterly, utterly obsessed with fairness. It's the most important element in any game. And human rule-enforcement is automatically deemed unfair. There is no referee, umpire or god-like grandparent that can escape being seen as unfair at some point, for some decision. But the commanding voice of Cosmic Catch escapes all that. The relentless, ineluctable judgement of the RFID machine brooks no argument, is prey to no human frailties and biases and is immediately seen as fair."
  • It's more cursor*10, and it's as fiendish and entertaining as ever. The impaled-cursor is particularly cute.

Taking Turns

27 January 2009

Steven Johnson thinks that Candyland is a terrible game.

There’s a consistent theme to all these old-school game introductions: almost without exception, I have been mortified by the pathetic game that I’ve excitedly brought to the kids.

I don’t really agree with him.

For a more considered take on Candyland’s many failings (as well as successes), it’s worth reading this Play This Thing post (and, if you’re not aware of Candyland – it’s very much an American game – the Wikipedia page might prove useful).

I think Greg Costikyan’s Play This Thing post is a better judgment on the game. Namely: judged on its game mechanics, Candyland is a terrible game. But: games are about more than mechanics, and the things we learn from games are about more than games.

Candyland is a great first game; literally, the very first. It teaches turn-taking. It teaches the mores, the manners, the culture of playing boardgames. Later, when a child comes to a game where the rules are more complex, the turn process more intricate, the customs of gameplay are already learned; rather than focusing on learning the social interactions, they can focus on the complexity of the game itself.

And I’m totally fine with the idea of a game to teach you how to play games. After all, there are loads of games that teach you all manner of things; what’s wrong with the ideal of the first one teaching you about the medium itself?

Johnson also has a problem with games of chance – specifically, of total chance. And, he’s right, Candyland is such a game. But few games of total chance really are.

Consider Battleships, which he’s also not a fan of. Battleships begins with randomness: working out where to place your first shot. But the second the result of that hit is revealed, the game stops being random. As the locations of enemy ships are uncovered (or not), state emerges from the board, and you start exercising logic, and knowledge of the game rules, rather than firing totally into the dark. That, right there, is the game; the only truly random shot is the first one. .

In that sense, it’s not that far away from Go, a game where I dread the opening moves. There are 361 places to place a piece, and I know that I’m likely to be punished much later on for a bad opening. And yet: because my skill at the game is so low, the opening feels random to me. A skilled player will likely tell you it’s anything but.

In addition to “most games of chance aren’t“, let’s add “if it appears to be random, you might not understand the system as well as you think you do“.

The big difference between even the simplest videogame and the boardgames he describes is that the videogame keeps its mechanics to itself. The first thing that falls out of the box of a boardgame is the rulebook – the entire system of the game.

When you open a videogame, the first thing that falls out is the manual. It tells you the goals of the game, explains how to interact, sets you up with the world, but it hides the rules themselves.

And so the first move in any game is starting to infer the rules, and deduce the logic behind the system. In Super Mario Bros., you know that you have to rescue the princess – the goal is made clear upfront, in the game and in the manual. But the rules of the system aren’t. And so, using only “run” and “jump” (to begin with), you start to work out what you should and shouldn’t do, what the shortcuts to success are, what enemies are dangerous and when, and by doing all this you slowly build up a picture of the rules.

I enjoy Johnson’s writing a great deal, but in this case, I think his argument is flawed. Much as he does in Everything Bad Is Good For You, he takes a few shortcuts in his judgments upon the sophistication of (a) culture. I think the problem here is that he’s mistaking a kind of sophistication that videogames specialise in for a failing of boardgames (and particularly boardgames aimed at the very young). I don’t think Johnson puts forward a very fair argument, and I think that the holes in his argument are as significant as the points he makes.