Directory of All Essays

Thursday, March 11, 2010

GDC 2010 Slides: Convergence of Flash Portals and Social Gaming

Here are the slides from my talk at the Social Gaming Summit at GDC 2010. It was a good crowd in a very large room.

take care

Labels: , ,

Read more!

Friday, March 05, 2010

At GDC 2010

GDC has come once again. I'll be in San Francisco and would be happy to meet up with anyone. Just drop me an email at danc [at]

This year I'll be giving two talks, both during the prime napping hours of day.

The Convergence of Flash Games and Social Games
Wednesday (March 10, 2010) 1:45pm — 2:45pm

IGDA: Working to Death - Game Developers and the Future of Work-Life Balance
Thursday (March 11, 2010) 1:30pm — 2:30pm
With Erin Hoffman (IGDA Board Member, Quality of Life SIG cofounder, Moderator), Hank Howie (President, Blue Fang Games)

take care

PS: Steambirds is out. That means you can play it. Right now. If you like it, you owe Andy a beer.

Labels: , ,

Read more!

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Steambirds: Why indie games are good for fans

Here's a rough sneak peak video of an indie gem called SteamBirds. As I was playing, I started thinking about questions of authorship and authenticity in the game industry.

The game
Steambirds is a rare treat. The magical design equation = Steampunk + Turn-based strategy + Air combat.

Despite my immense love of turn-based strategy games, I've found two problems with the genre over the years. First, very few people make them any longer. This is simple silliness and is easily rectified. Second, and perhaps more damning, most turn-based games that exist take forever to teach and play. The gaps and chinks that once appeared in my youthful schedule are now jam packed with accumulated tasks, looming responsibilities and the vast pressure of my imminent demise. I'm lucky to squeeze in even a few minutes of playtime at the end of a long day.

With Steambirds, the devs managed to make a deep strategy game where a single match is over in minutes. It fits into my life. The interface is super streamlined so even casual players can learn the basics in 30 seconds. My wife, not exactly a hardcore gamer, has been playing for days now. How cool is that?

I'm a fan. Here's a simple question that should be asked of all games: Who is responsible for making this wonderful experience?

The problem with game development heroes
Here is what I have observed: If a game is built by a large team and published by a mainstream publisher, you cannot know who is responsible for the game.

As an exercise, name a modern developer whose work has changed your life. If you are a mainstream gamer, you'll likely name the talking head behind the latest console smash. Chances are that the individual you think of as the key creative force is:
  • A cog in a much larger machine. Only rarely does an individual contribute more than 1% of the magic that makes a large title sparkle. There are just too many cooks in the large scale game development kitchen for individuals to shine.
  • Not directly responsible for the market success of the title at hand. Much of the success of AAA titles is based off brand and marketing budgets that weigh in at double the development cost. Without the expensive propaganda the drives a finely honed message into our consciousness, many of the 'most popular' titles would be little more than footnotes.
  • Made spokesperson by the direction of marketing. Talking heads, even ones with the title of 'designer' or 'producer' are often selected for their ability to A) deliver a message or B) coast by on their past history. Few tell an authentic story based on their personal contribution to the game. Real contributers are hidden behind the anonymous whitewash of the studio name.
The game media, trained to vacuum up press releases and pre-packaged interviews, never asks the probing question "What did you actually do?" or "Well, if you didn't, who did?" Marketing handlers merely selects a plausible face and media blindly crowns them as worthy creative visionaries.

Idols, even false ones, fill a uniquely human need for worship. Both gamers and journalists are desperate to adore, to celebrate, to follow the brilliant individuals that birthed our favorite games. When presented with the mechanistic, faceless truth of modern game development, we reject reality and seek something, anything that fits our preconceived notions of creative genius. A paper hero constructed of marketing materials fits the fan's need and is gladly assembled for each game launch.

But do we really need to settle? Are artificial heroes necessary? What if there were real gaming celebrities out there who are actually worthy of our veneration?

How a fan should select an authentic gaming hero
Here's an exercise for selecting someone in the game industry to admire.
  1. Is the game worthy?
  2. Are you being lied to?
  3. Are the authors identifiable as a real human being?
  4. Is their contribution meaningful and authentic?
  5. Does their contribution predict future enjoyment?
As we step through each of these, I've got a bold claim that I'll state up front: The only people that we, as fans, can claim with 100% certainty are worthy of our appreciation are small teams of independent developers.

Is the game worthy?
You can think about the worth of game in terms of Reach (the number of people it impacts), Depth (the depth of the experience) and Innovation (the degree to which the game moves the industry forward.)

Reach: An indie title like Steambirds will almost certainly will reach millions. It will be played by more gamers than 99% of all games on any game market. Take your pick...Xbox, Wii, PS3, DS, iPhone. In terms of broad popularity, Steambirds will have a bigger reach than the vast majority of games ever released during the history of gaming. Let that sink in for a moment.

Depth: For a percentage of players, a game made by one or two people can be just as compelling as any bloated AAA monstrosity. The elegant birds flying upward in Adam Saltsman's Canabalt spark deeper feelings within me than any of the overwrought hair porn smeared haphazardly across Bayonetta.

Innovation: A game like Steambirds doesn't play much like the vast number of clones that continually flood the market. From one perspective, it is another turn-based strategy game that has clear roots in existing (albeit obscure) boardgames. Yet compared to the dozens of FPS, physics games, platformers, tower defense titles and match 3 games, a project like Steambirds is delightfully unique. It innovates in terms of UI. It innovates in terms of genre pacing and mechanics. It even takes place in an original setting. (One where the fusion reactor was invented in the 1800s!)

I use Steambirds as an example, but there are dozens of indie titles that fit any sane definition of worthy. When you objectively measure game on worth instead of paid hype, you realize that games built by independent developers are rapidly becoming the defining experiences of a whole new generation of players. Just the other day I was chatting with my doctor, a gray haired lady in her fifties. She started excitedly talking about the great new game she was playing, a title called Osmos. This isn't some mainstream or casual is pure indie gaming. It hit me: our stereotypes are broken. The fact that a game is 'indie' no longer limits it to being a niche product.

Greatness is now independent of development budget. It is no longer defined by team size or marketing campaigns. A great game is a great game, be it a AAA marquee title or a 2D project made by two guys with a dream.

Are you being lied to?
If there is a publisher, there is always spin. It is built into the incentive structure associated with funding and marketing a game portfolio.

With an indie game like Steambirds, there is no vast publisher machine with a financial need to twist and massage the truth. You are connected directly by blogs, forums and interviews with the developer. Many times they are the ones responding to your emails directly. There are no endless lists of people who may or may not have actually ever made something. Unlike most most pro developers, the human beings responsible for every lovingly crafted detail of indie games even have names. You can look them up. They have ugly, honest, human websites, not extravagant confections excreted by nameless outsourced minions.

Honesty and transparency should matter to true fans. It is worth dedicating your passion and energy to something real, not a lie.

Are the authors identifiable as real human beings?
For Steambirds, I helped a bit on the design and graphics, but real creator of the game is Andy Moore, who worked alongside Colin Northway on the phenomena called Fantastic Contraption. The musician is by DannyB, the sizzling dynamo behind games like Canabalt and Super Meat Boy. In some ways, it is a game made by indie superstars.

It matters that Andy Moore is a real person, not a cog playing a role. I've met him last year in Austin and together we drank some fine microbrews. Along with a crew of other indies, we partook in an ill fated 2am adventure through the back alleys of Austin in search of a magical rumored cupcake deli. As we were chatting, he told me how after Fantastic Contraption, he sold off everything that didn't fit in a suitcase. This practice is called 'rightsizing your life' and it shows a dedication to game development that I find both rare and admirable. The fact that his lovely girlfriend puts up with his artistic journey is even more admirable.

Now, he lives to make games. Just last weekend, he was tapped as a mentor for the Global Game Jam and stepped up at the last minute to bail out a failing team. By the end of 48 hours, they had created a giant grotesque caterpillar that barfed rainbows. The crowd gave him a standing ovation.

You won't find such stories told at press junkets. In fact, you may not even be able to find out the names of the people who actually worked on the game. Merely having accurate credits is still somewhat of a controversial topic for many large developers.

Games made by real people...there is something inherently valuable about the human story behind a game's creation.

Is their contribution meaningful and authentic?
Andy programmed every line of code in Steambirds. He isn't a 1% contributer. He is a majority contributor. My rule of thumb is simple: If you remove a person from the project, does the project still get finished? Does it still reach it's potential? I challenge you to find such a person on most non-indie projects. You typically won't. The cogs are treated as replaceable components (even when they aren't.)

After the project started, I found out that Andy is an amateur pilot. Steambirds was not merely a job. It was an opportunity for him to express his love of airplanes as a game. This intrinsic motivation is the difference between Van Gogh placing his turbulent emotions on canvas and an assembly line mechanically painting signage.

Personal passion and the size an individual's impact matter.

Does their contribution predict future enjoyment?
You haven't played Steambirds. But you may have played Fantastic Contraption. And you may have heard the tunes in Canabalt. There is a direct mapping between the creative skills expressed in Steambirds and your impressions of the author's past efforts. Much like how you might check out the album of your favorite band, you should also be inclined to check out the newest game from your favorite indie developer. Their creative blood courses through their entire body of work.

No such link with the past exists on games made by larger teams. 8 times out of 10, the name of both the publisher and the development company on the box have no coherent connection with the people who made the game. The team logos are, in effect, meaningless badges that exist purely for the sake of marketing. If someone says that they like or dislike an EA game, they obviously have no idea what they are talking about.
  • A publisher's brand is a business shell, not a developer that creates authored experiences.
  • Publishers often switch up teams on a title by title basis. The group that made the game that you enjoyed is unlikely to be the same team that was contracted to make the sequel.
  • Large teams experience massive churn. Some groups lose upwards of 50% of their developers from game to game. The original people who made your beloved game may not even make games any longer.
  • Power shifts within a large developer often alter creative direction in unpredictable ways.
A clear, strong connection between the author and his works helps you, the player make meaningful judgement about whether or not you want to try future games. Without this simple, obvious connection, you are just a sucker caught up in a cynical branding shell game.

True fans know who makes their games
In summary, when you really love a game, be it a small title or a large title, do the following:
  • Find out who actually made the game you love.
  • Look for games where vision and ownership are clearly visible.
  • Reject the marketing machine.
As I look at this list, I am delighted by the indie game movement because for the first time in many years, players can once again associate the efforts of a human being with their great game experience. I want to be celebrate the individuals who makes the games that change my life. I don't want to be a suckered by some expensive snow job. Indie games let me be a fan who is cheering on someone authentic and deserving. That is pretty darned cool.

take care

PS: Steambirds is currently in bidding over on Wish Andy luck!

PPS: mind is blown! Some eagle eyed commenters pointed out a great little space strategy game called Critical Mass by Sean O'Connor that has a very similar control system...and was created in 1995. I love it! It is awesome when two smart team independently stumble on the same solution decades apart. Convergent evolution in action. This also points out the importance of seeking out old masters for great ideas. If we had known about Critical Mass, perhaps we'd have a few dozen less UI prototypes. :-) Credit to an original innovator where credit is due: Go check out Critical Mass.

Labels: , ,

Read more!

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Ribbon Hero turns learning Office into a game

This post has two goals. One, I want to share with you something amazing; a thing that according to most views of the tech universe should not exist. Two, I want to talk about a coming revolution in application design.

The amazing thing
Imagine Microsoft Office turned into a video game. One where learning a productivity app is a delight. One where the core loop of gameplay involves using and gaining skills in Word, Excel and PowerPoint.

It sounds a bit unlikely doesn’t it?

Well, I’m happy to announce the availability of Ribbon Hero, a new download from Microsoft that turns using Office into a game. I’ve been helping the fine folks over in Office Labs with the design and we are all immensely proud that this is getting released to the public. Huge kudos to Jen, Jonas and the rest of the team. CNET calls it "Brilliant".

Go download it now. You can challenge me on Facebook with your elite formatting skills.

The coming revolution
Ribbon Hero, in part, was born from a speech I gave back in October 2007 on applying the design lessons of Super Mario Bros. to application design. I made the following bet:
  • If an activity can be learned…
  • If the player’s performance can be measured…
  • If the player can be rewarded or punished in a timely fashion…
  • Then any activity that meets these criteria can be turned into a game.
Not only can you make a game out of the activity, but you can turn tasks traditionally seen as a rote or frustrating into compelling experiences that users find delightful.

The foundations of user experience design are incomplete
Games offer a very different value proposition than what you get from traditional usability design. The essence of modern UI design is summed up by usability guru Steven Krug’s proclamation “Don’t make me think!” We are taught, as UI designers, as website developers and as software creators that our target user is a shallow dullard. The prototypical user is presented as incapable of reading, barely cognizant of what they desire and are best served by products that offer a least common denominator feature set.

This user model is well supported by empirical data. Sit in on any usability test and your subjects will flail about, click on the wrong things and ignore most obvious visual cues. We assume that users are idiots because we see them behave like idiots whenever we test them.

The results of our current design philosophy are wonderfully simple apps that allow new users to perform one or two universal tasks in as streamlined a manner as possible. These are the Googles, the Twitters and the Diggs of the world. They focus on ease of acquisition and limit their functionality to the 20% of features that serve 80% of the population.

Yet, as applications grow, the “Don’t make me think” philosophy stumbles.
  • Users grow. Given the opportunity, new users rapidly become intermediate and expert users.
  • Different users, especially skilled users, want to master different tasks. Finding one or two universal tasks that matches all users is nearly impossible.
  • New opportunities emerge. As both the developers and the users gain experience with the software, they discover new use cases and tasks that create immense user value. Many developers are faced with the task of either bolting on new use cases or creating entirely new software, fragmenting their brand and user base.
Google Documents is slowly becoming just as much of a usability monstrosity any major text editor (Notepad excluded). Even apps that offer a more limited creative palette such as, Ebay and Amazon try desperately to maintain their simplicity. We attempt to leverage pre-existing skills. We carefully layer beginner, intermediate and expert functionality. We use the democracy of split testing to eliminate minority use cases.

Yet, despite the fact that Web 2.0 started with a fresh new philosophy of minimalism and a clean slate, it is rapidly converging on the same frustrating and complex usability solutions found in desktop applications. The current state of the art is missing something fundamental.

Game design focuses on improving user skills
Game design, as applied to application design, brings several powerful ideas to the discussion that are either missing or underrepresented in existing descriptions of UX design.
  • Users are learning machines: All users have immense inherent potential to learn and master new skills.
  • Exploratory learning is fun: Given the proper environment, users will, of their own free will, explore an unknown task. They will try, fail and then finally gain enough insight that they grok the core problem at an intuitive level. When this moment of mastery occurs, users smile.
  • Exploratory learning can be engineered into repeatable systems: Moments of delight and skill acquisition are highly reproducible. All you need is a well designed and balanced system of interconnected feedback loops that helps guide and encourage the formation of new skills.
  • Learning in games is both modular and user directed: Once you have techniques for reliably teaching users new skills, you can modularize your application and let users decide what they want, when they want it and how much that matters to them.
If you start with the idea that users are learning machines, all our observations about usability tests snap into place. Of course, people stumble when they use an application for the first time. They don’t understand the interface because it is new to them. And users will stay at that inexperienced level if we do not make an attempt to teach them how to improve. We’ve diagnosed a burbling baby as a hopeless invalid, blind to the fact that babies grow, learn and flourish.

When users play a game, they spend hours first slowly building up basic skills. Then they assemble these building blocks into complex stratagems. Ultimately, they expertly wield the systems of the game like a finely honed tool. By the time the game ends, the player is no longer the same beginner that started. The design of the game directly helped improve their mental model of the world in a profound and measurable manner. The whole time, the player is having fun.

To me, the rich lessons of past 30 years of modern game design are lessons about human potential. Let’s start with the assumption that people are amazing. We have built pyramids. We have created clockwork contraptions that move mountains and measure the universe. Every day, we navigate a crazy quilt work world of technology, geography, language and culture. Surely we are capable of more complex interactions than typing a word in a plain vanilla search box.

Instead of only treating our users like idiots, how can we follow a design philosophy that actively empowers our users to fulfill their vast potential? The techniques gleaned from game design are one very meaningful path worth exploring.

Practice matters more than theory
Now, it is one thing to talk about how game design can improve application design. It is a completely different task to grab a hold of Microsoft Office, the epitome of traditional application design, and turn it into a playable game.

Ribbon Hero is not the best game in the world. Not yet. However, even in its basic state, it does all the wonderful things that games do in the context of one of the world’s most used, most serious applications. People learn. They improve. And they enjoy the process. Such a highly valuable class of user experience has eluded traditional design for decades.

If these miracles can be done with Microsoft Office, how might game design change the applications you want to build in the future?

take care


Labels: , , , ,

Read more!

Friday, December 25, 2009

Happy Holidays 2009!

(Click for a larger image)

First, here is a holiday picture I painted for everyone. The creature to the left is a Hairy Elephantosaurus. His prehensile mustache and beard are well suited to both the winding of fine pocket watches and the adjusting of crystalline monocles.

As the last few moments of 2009 draw to a close, I look back with great delight on what has unfolded so far. I started the year at GDC and was struck by the immense potential of plugins such as Flash, Unity and Silverlight. At the same time, I was saddened by the generally low level of both business and development knowledge that exists in the developer community targeting those platforms. You can give a man a finely crafted fishing rod, but if he uses it like a club to beat fish senseless, he may still starve.

The Flash web market. in particular, is rapidly changing. Here are some thoughts on what comes next.
  • The quality bar will rise: Veteran developers from the vicious battlefields of casual games and social games will begin adopting Flash as their primary platform. They'll bring with them vastly superior art and larger budgets. As a result it becomes harder for the individual indie to make it into the top 0.01% that makes a living.
  • Portals get on the web-based F2P bandwagon: Some major flash portals will make free-to-play games a major portion of their offering. It is a richer source of revenue and increases retention. In the dog-eat-dog world of game portals, adapt to new sources of sustenance or die.
  • The growth of long form Flash: Due to the support of portals, the success of social games, plus the revenue benefits of micro transactions, long form Flash games will start to encroach on the dominance of short form sponsored games. Some of the first generation developers that experimented with tacking transactions onto their existing short form titles will see the light and design retention-based play directly into their upcoming titles.
  • Viral distribution will break out of the social networks: As developers figure out that the game lives in the cloud not on a portal, they'll start treating social networks as one of many marketing channels and stop equating 'social game' with Facebook alone. Viral loops will evolve into game driven marketing, a set of highly scalable, automated, experimentally verified techniques that drive an exponential acquisition of players. You need a server, you need players, you need a method of communication and notification. You do not however need a social network per se. Expect modular marketing systems built into some high end games that target multiple social networks, consoles, email address books, flash portals and any other concentrated source of potential customers. At least this is what I'll be doing. :-)
  • Gameplay will continue to dominate: We are still in the stage of the market where we compete based off innovative gameplay, business models and distribution, not non-game fluff like narrative, licensed IP and massively expensive 3D graphics. Thank God. These priorities will shift as the web games market matures, so let's enjoy it while we can.
So many exciting opportunities. Let's raise a toast to an amazing and prodigious 2010! You are going to do great things.

take care

Labels: ,

Read more!