Category: Reading

Just finished up an article on Industry Gamers by James Brightman that claims to explain why Triple-A platform game creators so often fail when they develop social games.  He explains that it is because traditional developers and publishers are “failing to make a game that’s truly social…You’ve got to make a game that’s about socializing, make social the core of what you’re inventing, and then build the game around that.”  The article suffers from a classic argument flaw – the very base of his argument (that successful social games are based on socializing) is wrong.

Now, I agree that console developers haven’t quite figured out social – though I am looking forward to reading more about how Dragon Age’s Facebook game is doing, with the extra content that you can port to your console game; I think that is a brilliant idea.  But I would argue that actual social game developers are failing as much as console game developers to “make a game that’s about socializing.”   We’ve heard it time and again, but I’ll reiterate – Farmville, Sorority Life, and most of the Facebook games out there are NOT social.  You rarely make a new friend through them, reconnect with old friends, or even hold conversations with players.

So Mr. Reynolds of Zynga, please don’t go claiming that console developers are failing BECAUSE they’re not developing games around being social;  you guys really aren’t either.  They are failing because they are trying TOO hard to actually be social, without understanding that “social games” aren’t about social.  Social games are about simple gratification and customization.  They are about having friends to get ahead, not working with friends to get ahead.

Console developers need to realize that Facebook was originally built to display your personality and build your ego, and Facebook “Games” (thus far) are just an extension of this.  Developers in any space need to understand who the users are on the platform they are developing for; you wouldn’t build Farmville for XBox and sell it for $60 because that just isn’t the market.  Facebook’s users joined to find and connect friends (though not necessarily have in-depth discussions with them) and to show off.  Every choice they make on that platform reflects that, including the games they play.  Zynga’s pulled so far ahead because they built games to feed that need first and foremost – not Triple-A titles OR social games.



A Rut Before I Even Start

I recently downloaded the GameSalad client, which is interesting and definitely has gotten me thinking about digital games I’d like to create – not just the stories but the actual mechanics that go into them.  It’s fun to figure out how items will affect stats, how actors would interact, etc.  But actually creating those games has made me a wreck.  I’ve found the technology limiting and difficult to wrap my head around; in the end, it just makes me want to learn to code  – which I really don’t think I have the time for.  So I start to put aside this game design thing.

Then Russ Fan reached out and asked a simple question, “How’s it going on the game design stuff?”  This goes back to an older post of mine on the importance of having partners.  To have someone – who just one month ago was a complete stranger to me and who even now I have only met once – take a moment out of their day to think of my quest and reach out reminded me I do have support.  So I replied with my frustrations, and Russ directed me to another helpful article about Brenda Brathwaite’s time creating analog games when she felt frustrated by her own digital experiences (PS: Brenda is an incredible resource on Twitter, talking about her daily work experiences and situations.  Gives me a nice idea of what designers do.  Am hoping to have a chance to meet her, soon.)

Photo if Brenda's "Train" game, taken for The Escapist. Can you get your "cargo" to the warehouse?

Brenda found inspiration through moments in history where people struggled (as we do games), but that our modern society may not really understand, and creating a “game” experience around that.  I place the quotes as many of these didn’t end up being fun, as we think of fun.  They were making you the slave trader or the nazi leader and asking you to manage your “cargo” – but they made you think and feel and understand.

I hadn’t been focussing on analog games as I wasn’t even sure how to start with them; in my mind they didn’t tell stories like digital games do – they were just pieces and a board.  But I see now that they can – and really, they should.  This brief article alone made me finally actually want to start thinking analog and tell a hand’s on story.

Thank you, Russ & Brenda!

How a Board Game Can Make You Cry” by Jordan Dean

The Art History of Video Games

Don’t worry, this is NOT a post on “are video games art?” – at least not mostly.  I guess it is, because it assumes that yes, video games are art – but doesn’t really argue the point as I think its pretty obvious that, for the most part, they are  – at least the industry is an artistic industry, and art comes from it (as does crap…)  So yeah, you are not getting into yet another one of THOSE posts with this.

I just read an interview between Kill Screen Magazine and professor John Sharp discussing how many game designers and developers have little experience studying art history and concepts, and John’s opinion that they should, and fast.

While the debate between whether or not video games are Art still gurgles up here and there, I feel that most people who work in the industry are in agreement that yes, video games are Art.  There are games that come out that aren’t – that are just profit-machines or labors of, well, labor.  But for the most part the industry does produce a lot of Art.  We just don’t have the terminology to study it, and thus create larger meaning and purpose for it.  Mr. Sharp makes a great analogy between the Renaissance time for sculpture and now; people have been sculpting since we developed a frontal lobe, but we hadn’t studied it as art or developed terminology for it until the Renaissance.  Mr. Sharp mentions that, during the Renaissance, people also focussed so much on defining terms that they missed the greater impact of their work; I would argue that we need those very terms to identify and explain that impact.  Without the vocabulary, we can only point and go “nice”; we needed to define the general norms before we could definite social purpose.

Video Games are going through a similar intellectual movement now, working to be raised as a more respected form and present a larger variety of content: not just shoot-em-ups and RPGs, but existential studies of time, figure, and movement.  But without a shared set of terminology to discuss these movements and examples, without a universal understanding of accepted goals and boundaries, we can’t identify when those boundaries are passed.

And this begins to link back, albeit weakly, to the idea of the Ethics of Games.  As a designer, it is your responsibility to know WHY you are making the choices you make in a game and HOW they will affect the player, not just at the moment they are playing but long after.  Help initiate dialogues about purpose, method, and style.  Create a gamut of terminology and practice that can help the world identify Art from Business in video games, and help raise the industry to a new level of standards.  And I think this is why Mr. Sharp wants designers to study Art History & Theory more thoroughly – learn from how this was done in the past to be able to more quickly accomplish it now.

Thorough Video

That was referred to me by a Mr. Abraham Dieckman.  It does make this whole quest a lot more intimidating, but it also clarifies a few questions I had about what I need to know and where I can start.  I definitely have a lot of work ahead of me.

Any designers who may read this have thoughts on the video?  Accurate?

So You Want To Be a Game Designer – by The Escapist

This interview with Jonathan Blow – creator of what I felt was the truly innovative Braid -has been the first thing (of whats to be many, I am sure) that I have read in my new quest to game design that has taught me something new.  Prior to this I had been revisiting gaming mechanics I already knew (but are not terrible to be reminded of) – different types of points (experience, skills, and reputation; given for time spent, tasks completed, and others), metagames, etc.  It was nice to be able to start being inspired.

Adventure Games still Need a Lot of Renovation

Looking Outside the Captain's Quarters

What happened here? Who was the captain and why did s/he leave all this behind?

I was glad to hear a game designer speak on the flaws of adventure games.  As a kid, I played perhaps a half dozen of these, and really wanted to like them.  The concept is beautiful – giving the player a lot of freedom to explore a world and make choices that will affect the future, to solve puzzles without guidelines and NPCs hopping in essentially telling you what to do.  I played Myst for hours (and I admit, needed a little guidance), just to immerse myself in the world; I would revisit that old ship level just to explore hear the sounds and watch the graphics and invent stories in my head of what happened.  Myst did what Russell Davies talks about in his article, Playful, better than most games I had seen before: it gave me a platform to play pretend.  Too many Adventure Games, I felt, either held my hand too much (putting an aura around things I should pick up, or telling me what to use in each situation) or gave me too little to work with.  I’d find myself wandering out, clicking on everything, and then figuring out what to do with it just through process of elimination.  It wasn’t fun, it was a chore.  But I always felt they could be done right, and hearing that other people see the same flaws I do makes me want to do it myself.

Social Games Need Innovation

Dragons of Atlantis

Dragons of Atlantis by Kabam - playing synchronously with people you don't know, and making new friends.

Well, Jonathan didn’t seem to think this specifically – he seems to think they are just plain evil, and not at all social.  I can’t tell you how long the latter has been a thorn in my side.  My first conference was on the creation of the Facebook Platform and where it would go, so trust me when I tell you I have ridden by this beast from the very start.  I do not hate “social games” as Jonathan seems to – I play a handful of them, and understand the audience they target – but I do recognize they are still in their infancy, and have a lot of growth to do.  In the same way that I and many others say that console games need to learn from social games, I think social games need to learn from board games and MMOs.  Jonathan summed it up better than I ever could: “it’s about the game exploiting your friends list that you already made, so it’s not really about meeting people. And it’s not really about doing things with them because you’re never playing at the same time. It’s about using your friends as resources to progress in the game, which is the opposite of actual sociality or friendship.”  I will definitely be using that line in the future.  But I don’t think this is reason for “good” game designers to give up on social games; I think it’s just an area for improvement.  Before reading this article, I thought “No way in hell am I working in social games;” now I feel like that could be a duty, especially since Jonathan mentioned:

The Ethics of Game Design
Here is where this article really started to teach me.  What first drew me to game design was the power designers have over people.  There are so many simple behaviors we as humans still hold from our animal nature; the desire to compete with our neighbors, the drive to collect more than them, the necessity to show it off.  In game design, we become more conscious of the activities that trigger these and make use of them.   Initially, when I thought of apply to ethics to game design, I figured it meant working on things like Jane McGonigal is – gaming for good, to teach kids how to read, or identify bombs.  This left me feeling guilty that I wanted to get into platform or mobile gaming rather than use my skills to change the world.  However, this limited thinking on game design ethics also leaves room for many designers to blow it off: “well, social service isn’t the goal of my game, so it doesnt apply to me.”  But Jonathan brings it down to an even more basic level that resonated with me, and I hope all gamers: “[I ask designers,] Are you trying to take advantage of your players and exploit them? Or are you trying to give them something?…To me it doesn’t matter if people feel like they’re having fun or feel like they want to play the game, because the designers know what they’re doing.”

I may not feel as driven (yet) to create games that change the world, that help impoverished nations or teach children life skills.  But I do want to create games that add – rather than take – from our overall value of life.  I want to work on games that are not just “fun” but that get the player to approach the problem from a new perspective, to experience a different sort of reality, and to perhaps apply some of those lessons to the problems they encounter in their own lives.  I never want to look at a game I have worked on and only measure the money it is earning (which is still an important metrics).  I want to know that it is empowering the user and helping them feel truly accomplished.

First Reading List

Before leaping into anything new, I like to learn about it.  I want to suck in any and all information I can.  It can become a problem – especially with the internet being what it is.  With my complete ignorance right now, it is hard for me to figure out what is a valuable source and what is a load of crap, which articles will help me and which are just hot air.  At the moment, I am only reading things people already in the industry suggest – to at least try to have some filter – and hopefully as I read more, I’ll be able to pick out the cream of the crop for myself.

What I do still need to figure out is how I personally best learn.  I can’t just sit and read all of these – I’m bound to forget everything as soon as it goes in my brain.  I need a structure for HOW to read….any suggestions are certainly appreciated.

A huge thanks to Ramine Darabiha, Neil Halder and Randall Thomas for sending many of the links along to me.

THINGS I HAVE READ (and recommend)

Gamification and Its Discontents – by Sebastian Deterding
Made me think more closely about badges, points, how companies are applying them, and exactly how they are designed and affect me whenever I see them.

Playful – by Russell Davies
A great entry-level discussion of what makes a game, the importance of imagination, and how we can turn every-day tasks into games.


Lessons in Level Design (as seen in SMB3) – At Significant Bits

The Game Prodigy Blog

Metagame Design – Slide Show by Amy Jo Kim

Meaningful Play – Slide Show by Sebastian Deterding

The Rise of the Indie Game – A nice curated list of MORE to read…

Retro Gaming Foundations – A curated list put together by RacketBoy on the basics of game design and interaction.



A Theory of Fun, by Raph Koster

The State of Play, by Beth Noveck and Jack Balkin

Rules of Play, by Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman

Reality is Broken, by Jane McGonigal