Curious Games: “Best Practice”

curious games, indie, research

This week, the Curious Games Lab gang talked about heuristics and best practice, and how they’ve evolved from efficiency models in the workspace. Here’s an article that takes a tour of these heuristics and recommendations and analyzes some games in terms of them:

Sweetser, P., Johnson, D., Wyeth, P. and Ozdowska, A. (2012) “GameFlow heuristics for designing and evaluating real-time strategy games”. In Proceedings of The 8th Australasian Conference on Interactive Entertainment: Playing the System (IE ‘12). ACM, New York, NY, USA.

Sweetser et al. provide a set of guidelines for making games that have already been made. While there is a great deal of sense in not totally reinventing the wheel and finding a completely different way to deal with every one of these heuristic elements, keeping each of these the same across games removes the incentive to innovate.

I think that it makes more sense to start from a game concept, mechanic, or idea that the developer finds interesting and to work from there and decide what will be best for that game than it does to start with best practices. Best practices are probably useful for conventional aspects of the game that the developer is not trying to highlight – making them the same as most other games in a genre is a good way of effacing them. So, if something is not an important aspect of the game, there’s no sense in reinventing the wheel… or is there?

We discussed the possibility of creating a series of games that basically takes these heuristics and deliberately breaks every single one of them, one by one. I think that’s the kind of exploration that makes best use of these “best practices.”

In my own attitude towards playing games, I think that I’m trained to expect the “best practice” kind of experience (to the point where, when starting Unfinished Swan and being faced with a completely blank screen with just a dot in the middle, I thought that I must need a move controller to play it, but as it turns out I could have just checked the controls to know that I could sling paint with the trigger buttons – which are, in most games that I play, not usually the primary controls, and that I didn’t even think of pressing. Since the screen was blank, I couldn’t judge my progress when moving the joysticks either, so I didn’t know what was going on.) but I don’t want to be trained to expect it (I laughed very hard about the Unfinished Swan thing). I like games that turn my expectations on their ears.

Similarly, while sometimes it’s good to give the player some sign posts, I resent the recommendations in the Sweetser article that recommend a whole lot of hand-holding and that recommend that games should be playable by people of all skill-levels. Some games should just be really hard – not everyone should be able to easily finish them. It’s the same with books, and it’s the same with nearly every other medium. Not everyone appreciates the same experience in the same way.

Games that break the rules tend to be the most memorable and replayable. Katamari Damacy in particular comes to mind: the goal is to roll up the level, and at larger scales the player can literally roll up entire islands and eventually continents. It breaks most of the recommendations for Concentration in the Sweetser article, depending on how you interpret them. Actually, all of these are largely dependent on how you define them for a specific game. Some of them even seem to contradict each other: what is stimuli that is “worth attending to?” and is that stimuli a “distraction from tasks that [players] want or need to concentrate on?”

As a game designer, I have not yet discovered exactly what kinds of games I’m making, having only made three so far (one as part of a GGJ team this year, one for Pixelles, and the one that I’m making for the Curious Games Studio), but I do recognize that what I am doing is trying to make games that I haven’t seen before.

Oh, and because I will recommend this every chance I get and have mentioned Katamari in this post, here’s an in-browser version of Katamari Damacy:
Roll up!

Curious Games: Planning Ahead

adventures in gaming, curious games, indie, research

medical malpractice lawyer says: “very nice post, i actually love the web site, keep on it”

Looks like I’m on to something! You keep on it too, medical malpractice lawyer!

So what I have been doing this week for the game is creating assets and continuing to think about design. So far, the very basic Stencyl file has a custom cursor, screen shake that simulates poor motor skills (but there will be much more to mess with the player’s motor skills if I have my way) and a health bar that starts at 2000/3000 PSI.
(Why 2000? Because in diving, it is recommended to reserve 1/3 of an air tank for the descent to a destination, 1/3 exploring that destination, and 1/3 for the ascent.)

Here are two of the lovely art assets that I’ve made this week: the buoyancy control hose and the console – hand-drawn in Photoshop. (I’m not yet sure if I’m going to have the console have static dials, animated dials, or just numbers).

These are modeled after my own BCD, which the player will be wearing.

These are modeled after my own BCD, which the player will be wearing.

I have this desire to make most of the effects in the game randomized or happen at more or less random intervals… I’m sure that this is relatively simple, but I have to look up how to do it in Stencyl. That can make simple tasks seem daunting — kind of like Nitrogen Narcosis! — so I tend to plan things out in detail when I could probably just start implementing features and see what sticks.

Here’s my game plan (or really, a list of tasks that I need to accomplish and features that I want to include):

– because people with nitrogen narcosis have problems multi-tasking/tend to focus very narrowly on one task, I want a fish to swim by sometimes and for the camera/player’s view to follow/pan on the fish. I want the player to have to find their way back to the game board.

– because of that same narrow focus, I want the buoyancy of the player to occasionally cause the player to start to sink down past the game board, and for them to have to adjust the buoyancy to regain the board (and if they over-inflate, they may end up shooting to the surface — I don’t THINK this is too ambitious).

– because nitrogen narcosis can come with feelings of euphoria or fear: I want to adjust the brightness of the game in tune to either a very happy soundtrack or a very unhappy soundtrack. Preferably either can happen at random from a baseline. I may also include some bizarre actors like dancing fish or divers, or decorative decals.

– I want to blur the edges of the screen somehow (the camera shake effect does somewhat do this at higher intensities) to mimic tunnel vision (another symptom).

– I want to find other ways to mess with the player’s motor control — since I think it will be point and click, maybe I can find a way to at random reverse the mouse tracking (I know there’s a way to do this on consoles with the joysticks…I’m hoping there’s a way to do this in stencyl).

– Continuing with motor control, I was thinking that the placement of the pieces on the board should have to be quite specific – that the collision area of the piece should be quite small relative to the entire size of the piece, making it harder to place each piece.

– Because poor judgment (and, at much deeper depths, hallucination) is one of the major symptoms of nitrogen narcosis, I want to perhaps screw with the player’s perception by making the game board appear different than from how it actually is, or maybe make some game board pieces that can’t be dragged, or that can only be dragged so far.

– Because people experiencing nitrogen narcosis can experience slow thoughts: I want to find a way to slow down the player, perhaps by slowing down the controls or the speed at which a game piece can be moved. I don’t know if this is possible with stencyl. Maybe I can do this by creating a mechanic where the player clicks a piece then clicks the place on the board, and the piece travels at a predetermined speed towards the board. I could set the speed of individual pieces to different values, thus making some relatively easy to place, and some more difficult.

– I want to implement a 3-minute time limit on the game in which the player has to win a certain amount of tic-tac-toe games. How many will probably be determined by a lot of playtesting…

– I also want to have there be the chance that the player experiences some of the other minor annoyances of diving, such as a foggy mask or a free-flow (basically when the regulator gets stuck open and starts to spill out precious air — this is usually quickly fixable). I’m not sure if these will make it into the final game but as soon as I figure out randomization, they’d be easy to implement.

– Obviously, I have to program tic-tac-toe. Pippin has told me that he will help me with this. I was thinking that it might be interesting to have the program have some of the same handicaps as the player as a rational for the program making mistakes in the placement of their pieces.

Where I foresee some challenges is in randomizing these behaviours. I know that I can make the camera track a specific actor (the fish) through an environment. (I don’t know exactly how to allow the character to move the camera back.) I know how to make music play at specific times. I also know how to set collision areas and the movement speeds of actors. Largely, learning how to randomize the behaviour and learning to do it within appropriate parameters so that things aren’t totally at random, seems to be my biggest challenge. There are plenty of Stencyl tutorials about this, though. (Although learning to program Tic-Tac-Toe will be another kettle of fish.) I also foresee that I might have some difficulties with making the character navigate the level with the mouse, but I’m already thinking of ways around it.

I’ll keep you posted, Internet!

Curious Games: Tools and Neutrality

adventures in gaming, curious games, research

This past Wednesday during the Curious Games Studio class, we talked about the neutrality (or rather lack thereof) of software and other tools that most people use on a daily basis. Most tools are designed with the expectation that they will be used to create some fairly specific output with some fairly specific methods. The example that we discussed in the most depth is PowerPoint, which encourages an element of performance to the presentation of information and gives users all the tools to create punchy, attractive slides that privilege design over content. Here’s Edward Tufte on PowerPoint – and of course we can do this kind of analysis for nearly any kind of software.

When asked about the software and other tools that I myself use on a daily basis for content creation and how it affects my process, I immediately thought about a relative newcomer in my array: the cellphone, and, more specifically, the Apple iPhone 4S. Having only gotten a cellphone what is now almost six months ago, I can directly trace what impact it has had on my work and on my life more generally.

Now, before December 2012, I had never owned a cellphone and barely had any contact with them – if I had to borrow a phone, it was limited to a few minutes to place an urgent call and that was about it. The iPhone 4S is my first cellphone ever, and it was fairly easy to get enamoured with. It’s also easy to trace how it’s affected my practice and my day to day interactions with people. I decided to get a cellphone because I was home a lot less, I was about to begin a job working with video games, I was under the impression that a lot of indie games are released on iOS (which is the case but most are now pretty quickly ported to Android, so the joke’s on me – but honestly having gone from no cellphone to a 4S, a lot of what my cellphone does still feels incredibly sophisticated to me) and that having a smart phone would be great for live-tweeting journalism.

It used to be that I would fill up the small notebook that I carry in my bag with me about once every three months, taking down appointments, phone numbers, ideas, for writing down what my friends and I wanted to order out, that sort of thing. I also had larger notebooks for taking notes in class and for writing out those ideas in their larger forms. (Oh, incidentally, in January 2013 I acquired my first ever laptop, meaning that in two months I jumped forward about a technological decade.) Now, I’ve had my present notebook since December and there’s barely anything filled in. I’ve begun to take notes on my phone and laptop.

It also used to be that I would spend any traveling time reading books, but now I’m more likely to fiddle with a game or check in on work that needs doing. I used to read about a book or two a week just on transit. Now I’m still stuck on Padgett Powell’s The Interrogative Mood.

My iPhone also dictates, in some ways, what tools I will use on it – certain apps are free for Android but cost money on the iPhone, and vice versa, and since I’m a student, I don’t usually want to pay more than a dollar for an app that I may or may not end up using/liking/needing, etc. – and even then, the apps that I usually don’t mind paying for are things like critically-acclaimed indie games or…well, yeah, mainly those.

Having any cellphone at all has also changed the way that I communicate: it used to be that people could either call me at home and either reach me or leave a message or they could email me. I really liked the fact that if I was out and about, I was incommunicado, untethered and unlikely to be disturbed. Now, I can get called by work while I’m out at social events and of course I get way more text messages than phone calls.

In terms of productivity, my having a cellphone makes other people’s jobs easier – they can contact me when they need something and I can act right away, and they can contact me in real-time to see how the job is going. In terms of my personal productivity, what a terrible thing having a cellphone is! I’m not terrible about the whole obsessively checking my phone thing yet, but I have definitely played ‘Hanafuda’ more than I have read in the last six months, and I think that I can no longer really call Hanafuda “research.” I also waste time that should be spent writing checking things on social media and such, which was less the case when I was limited to my desktop.

On the other hand, and this is a bit of a sidebar, having a laptop has increased the speed at which and the number of places where I can write and accomplish other work. It permitted me to attend a conference the other weekend without any fear of missing important information and updates on my projects, and I am able to write much more quickly than with my pen and notebook since I type much faster than I handwrite.

So, in sum: having a cellphone has changed the way that I communicate and the kind of cellphone that I have has determined what products I use. It has made me more accessible to other people but has made my productivity decrease by quite a lot (I’m currently fighting to push the balance back in the other direction by simply taking the time to think about ideas while traveling instead of playing iPhone games). I do use it for work, having played games that I wanted to research on it, recently recorded an interview with Lynn Hughes and Bart Simon, live-tweeted talks and events, and done some writing/note-taking on it, but the ratio of work to time-wasting that I do with my cellphone is absolutely shameful. On the other hand, going mobile in other ways has had its advantages. I guess that as long as I can work on limiting my time-wasting activities, I’ll survive this personal technological revolution.