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

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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.

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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.

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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


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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

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Thursday, December 17, 2009

Game design as government

(Apologies to Aldous Huxley)

For many years, I've been thinking about game design as a form of governance.
  • Game mechanics, rules and systems are comparable to laws
  • Players are comparable to citizens
  • The code and moderators that enforce game mechanics are comparable to executive activities.
  • The act of game design is the equivalent of drafting new laws, legislative activities.
  • Issue escalation and customer service are comparable to judicial activities.
Each of these topics provides years of future discussion. However, for the sake of brevity, I'll limit this essay to some thoughts on how a game government differs from a traditional government. Game governments have the following unique attributes:
  • Games are voluntary
  • Games allow for rapid iteration
  • Games excel at targeting individuals
Games are voluntary
The current crop of games are voluntary activities. In a traditional government, you are a citizen of the geographic region or nation in which you live. Membership for those who are born there is automatic. Renouncing or acquiring citizenship is a difficult activity with numerous costs. In most games players choose to operate within the magic circle defined by the rules of the game. Playing a game is seen as an explicitly voluntary activity.

There are several prerequisites for the voluntary nature of game to be realized.
  • Freedom to leave: Player should be able to stop playing the game when they wish. At the very least, they can step outside the magic circle and return to the rules of the real world. However, they might also leave one game and switch to another. The voluntary nature of games is threatened when the player can no longer leave. If you are part of a school program in which Wii Fit is a required activity, it rapidly becomes something other than a game.
  • Freedom to participate: Equally important, players should feel that their actions within the game are voluntary. Free will, or at least the illusion of free will, is necessary for there to be meaningful choices, deep experiential learning and mastery. Remove the players ability to explore the space defined by the rules of the game and at best you have rote mechanical work. At worst, you've created a crushing regime that teaches and enforces mindless obedience to a machine made of code.
Neither participating in a game nor leaving a game is without cost. All games create a self contained system of value where players are taught that algorithmic constructs are meaningful to their lives. There is always an opportunity cost involved in forming these values. There is also a cost to leaving the whirling blinking, pinging systems behind. The sword you worked for so hard in WoW has little meaning outside the game.

Games enable rapid iteration
Most modern networked electronic games involve code executing on servers. The code can be updated and pushed out to millions of players in minutes. Unhappy with the current laws? A few keystrokes later and your populace is now bound by a fresh, crisply defined reality. Traditional governments lack this speed. Laws are deliberated for months and years. They are slowly rolled out piecemeal by people and enforced piecemeal by people. People are fallible and each interpets the laws according to their biases. Some laws don't work. Some laws have inexplicable consequences that play out over many years.

There are several consequences
  • Metrics: First, metrics concerning large swatches of player behavior are readily available. In many cases, developers can set up tests that let them know if the rules they've created are generated the behavioral result they desire.
  • Scientific iteration: The player population is easily segmented. We witness this currently with A/B testing or with the rollout of Facebook changes according to geographic regions. It is possible to launch rules in a population subset, measure the results and then either kill the experiment or spread the rules more broadly if they are a success. At one point Valve had a saying that went something like "If this is a design decision that is a matter of opinion, don't waste time arguing about it. Instead play test it." What are the ramifications of using the scientific method on the generation of laws for humans?
  • Democracy of behavior: This leads to a fascinating reinterpretation of the 2500 year old formulation of democracy. You no longer vote by taking time out of your schedule and filling out a piece of paper. Instead, you vote by doing. The player's actions determine the tale the metrics tell. There is always 100% voter turnout because by choosing to play, you automatically participate in the legislative process.
Game excel at targeting individuals
Games are laser focused on the individual's activities. They deal with individual choice and individual rewards. A game knows exactly what a single person has done and adapts accordingly. Traditional governments create broad swathes of rules that affect entities or populations. Their hold on any one individual is powerful, but is very much a blunt instrument. Specifically, traditional governments lack the detailed knowledge of individual behavior, the frequency of feedback and precision of the reward structure. Wherein taxes are a feedback loop that occurs once a year, Pacman adapts to your actions 30 times a second.
  • Game designs are laws targeted at the mundane activities of free will. With Bejeweled we influence how your spend your free time. With Wii Fit, we reward or punish how you exercise. With Nike Plus we reward and punish how you move your feet. With Facebook games, we mediate how you socialize. In time, each of these will improve. In time games will target more and more activities. Travel, sleep, energy usage, medicine, love, sex, eating. If we can measure it, we can make a game out of it.
  • Pervasive law: These quotidian activities are the meat of life. As games spread throughout our everyday moments, we are suddenly in the hitherto unheard of situation where law affects 80% of our lives.
If you designed the rules that governed even a small portion of the lives of millions of people, what sort of world would you create? What are your moral obligations as a game designer? Are we still just talking about money? Are we still only talking about fun?

take care

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Sunday, November 29, 2009

Three False Constraints

Once again, a call goes out to make games more culturally meaningful. I agree very much with the sentiment, but I've always been frustrated with how designers set themselves up for failure due to the constraints placed on the problem.

In mathematics, computer science, and physics there is a the concept of a 'hard' problem. What does the inside of a black hole look like? How do you identify an NP complete problem? How can we travel faster than the speed of light? All of these are wonderfully interesting, but they are considered ‘hard’ because there may not actually be an answer that is discoverable before the heat death of the known universe.

We’ve turned the creation of culturally meaningful games into a similarly ‘hard’ problem. It doesn’t need to be.

Three false constraints
When we talk about making games culturally meaningful we often limit the discussion in three important ways. The following constraints are completely arbitrary, yet we stick with them like they are some holy mandates from a greater god.
  • Single player: By ‘games’, game developers typically mean ‘single player games’. Multiplayer is either not considered or is treated as a secondary feature.
  • Authorial intent is expressed through content: We seek to create meaning through the use of content created by developers for consumption by players. Only if we author the right content in the form of graphics, movies, music, writing, active and level design will the game have impact. Content created by the players is discounted.
  • Powerful platforms: Inevitably developers talking about ‘video games’ limit themselves to consoles or perhaps high end PCs. There is an assumption that if only we can get better graphics, better AI, bolder levels and more intense explosions, then at some point we will cross over a line in the sand and all must bow before the amazing new reality we have wrought. Big budgets and big tech are clearly essential. The idea that these bits of crafted fluff are secondary to the value provided by the systems of game play is rarely mentioned.

When you relax these three constraints, creating meaningful games becomes immensely easier. We go from a problem domain where there are almost zero compelling solutions to one where there are thousands of solutions. For the rest of the essay I'll cover three big impossibilities facing games' acceptance as a culturally important activity. Each problem appears 'hard' when approached through the lens of our false constraints.
  • "People in a room talking"
  • "Saying something meaningful about the human condition"
  • "Reaching a broad audience"
The impossibility of “People in a room talking”
One of the ‘hard’ problems listed by Chris Hecker was the issue of people sitting around a table chatting. This is the mainstay of books and movies, yet it has eluded game developers. According to the false constraints, in order to solve this problem robustly we need the following:
  • Turing AI: A flexible conversational AI capable of passing a Turing test. It would be ideal if we also conquered the uncanny valley and hooked up our AI to virtual actors that were indistinguishable from real humans.
  • AI that can enforce artistic direction: We also need the ability for the developer to seed and control the AI so that the random interactions of thousands of unique players from unique backgrounds results the conveyance of the developer’s crafted message. The AI must therefore not only seem human, but it must understand the intent of the auteur and act as a super human manipulator of the environment and the player's experience.
I would argue that these are ludicrously hard problems. We can currently fake solutions in certain very limited situations, but we are lacking the most basic research necessary to solve these problems in a general fashion.

Even worse, the constraints conflict. There is an inherent tradeoff between increasing the flexibility of our AI and controlling the players experience. "React to the player! But do exactly what I, as the designer, tell you!" is more of a Zen kōan than a solvable problem.

...until you break the constraints
Yet as soon as you break the constraints, conversation becomes a trivial problem. A simple multiplayer online chat room gives the effect of people sitting around a room talking. So does any traditional board game or role-playing game. Or SMS. Or voice chat. Conversation flows naturally.

To the participants in the conversation, this chatter that results is more entertaining than the best writing or acting performed by the top talent in any medium. The tech is simple. The content comes from the players. And the interaction is multiplayer.

The impossibility of "Saying something meaningful about the human condition"
Another challenge posed is the goal of saying something meaningful about the human condition.
  • Spatial/temporal/math puzzles that evoke humanity: The vast majority of single player games have their roots in either timing, mathematics or spatial manipulation puzzles. These systems, though entertaining and relaxing, have great difficulty modeling emotions. Often a single player model that attempts to boil down the essence of humanity comes across as dry and soulless. Asking a single player game to evoke rich emotions is much like asking a polynomial to express love. In very limited situations, in the hands of extraordinarily talented people, (see Gravitation or Passage) a single player game can evoke a glimmer from a core group of players who desperately want to believe. But single player game mechanics may never become a populist technique for saying meaningful things about the human condition. No matter how prettily we cloak the issue with artful snippets of non-interactive media, the inherent Truth at the heart of the our favorite single player game systems does not deal with humanity.
  • More direct control over the player experience: As an author expressing our vision, it would be ideal if our systems were scripted content that all players will experience within narrow behavioral bounds. If only we could deliver tight directed payloads of content like they do in other media. When an actor cries in movie, the audience instantly empathizes and reflects that emotion back. Game designers need to develop the same reliable techniques of authorial control. Wouldn't it be great if a designer could type up an equation and boom!...players break out in tears or laughter. If only our math and code would whip up a tight roller coaster of an experience that worked for all players, all the time. Yet our control levers are at least one degree removed from those found in other media. We can't simply show a visual trigger that smacks a hardwired emotion button on our monkey brain. Instead we craft mere rules. The player controls their interaction with those rules and how their ultimate experience plays out. In good games, the player is making choices that matter and exploring the systems at their own pace in their own ways. In books and movies, the audience jumps when we, as authors, want them to jump. In games, the player jumps whenever the hell they want to.
Again, these are hard problems.

...until you break the constraints
Why both with spending all this time attempting to imbue cold, heartless single player systems with the essence of humanity when humans are readily available in the form of other players? When you put real people together in a game and create social mechanics to facilitate their interaction, you see an explosion of meaningful emotional reactions. People form friendship, make enemies, fall in love, offer compliments, insult one another, tell hilarious jokes, comfort one another, bond in groups and basically exhibit the entire rich range of social emotion and behavior.

As a designer, you give up on controlling the exact experience. Instead of crafting each moment, you look at the broader possibility space that your social rules create and foster. The play space can be shaped by the designer by manipulating systems, not content. However this is not situation of singular authorship. Rules, like the laws created by governments, interact with culture and citizens of our games in unexpected and surprising ways. We are improv musicians playing off other equally creative members of the band. Multiplayer design is an ongoing process of give and take with the community. In fact, there is a well established name for absolute authorial control in a social environment. It is called a dictatorship and only tends to work when the audience is coerced into playing along. In the voluntary communities of multiplayer games, authorship is a fundamentally multiplayer activity.

Again, you don't need a powerful platform or advanced tech to bring forth a flowering of meaning. And the vast majority of the content created certainly hasn't be edited by some god-like author. Yet the emotions are real and they are brought about through a system engineered by a designer. By massaging the specific economic and social tools that feed and facilitate the human conversation, you gain a set of design techniques capable of yielding vast universes worth of meaningful games.

The impossibility of "Reaching a broad audience"
Another point about the cultural significance of game is that despite our revenue numbers, we actually reach a relatively small number of players compared to other media. A 'dominant' gaming platform like an Xbox or PS3 has sold a meager 20-30+ million consoles. Only a handful of titles sell through more than 1 million copies and these sales are generally in a limited demographic of 14-39 year old boys. Compare this minor audience with other types of media that regularly serve 5 or 6 times as many people across a broad demographic. Yes, our revenue is impressive, but the facts are a AAA core console game will touch a tiny percent of the billions of people reached by other forms of media.

Year after year, the core gaming industry attempts to broaden the market. Nintendo succeeds a little, but the rest fail. But not for lack of trying! Now matter how detailed we make our graphics. No matter how deep with make our narratives. No matter how powerful we make our GPUs. It all fails. Moms, grandfathers, people in China still insist on ignoring the latest greatest Bioware RPG or Unreal shooter. We have our best minds on perfecting the potency of our best genres and still the core market exhibits anemic growth. Reaching a broad audience is apparently hard.

...until you break the constraints
Yet when you broaden your perspective ever so slightly to include alternative platforms not specifically targeted at games, reach is the least of our worries.
  • There are multiple Facebook games that serve over 25 million unique users a month and the current top game Farmville is played by 64 million unique users a month. The Facebook platform where these games live is at 300 million worldwide and is still growing like a weed. 77 million users are in the US along and the current growth rate is 70% compounded every 6 months.
  • Games are one of the most popular classes of app on the most popular smartphone. Smart phones form a platform that will reach over a half a billion people in the coming years.
  • An individual developer can release a Flash game today and reach 10's of millions of unique players. It really isn't a big deal any more to have a game played by a million people.
There is a common theme to all these platforms. Consoles try to turn people into gamers. They attempt to suck outsiders into the gaming culture so that they play on gaming specific devices in gaming specific contexts. The new generation of social, mobile, casual and web games integrate seamlessly into a person's existing life. Instead of asking the player to set aside 2 hours in the evening locked into staring at the output of a big clunky box, they offer players a chance to relax during while waiting for the bus. Instead of asking "how do we create dedicated gamers", we ask "How can games enhance your current life."

I look to the near future and see the reach of games growing dramatically. In the next 10 year, expect to see a single game with over 250 million unique users. That is a quarter of a billion people playing in the same space. Admittedly, we may not recognize the service as a game. The topic will likely be something mundanely meaningful, not elves and dragons. The platforms will also be mundane. Some players will use PCs. Most will use phones. As a bone tossed to a wounded beast, there may even be a thin client for the remaining console players.

The source of the constraints
All this begs the question: Why do so many of the best developers insist on hanging onto these miserable and damaging constraints? There are cultural and economic factors at work.

Cultural Momentum
I am reminded of a mildly diabolical childhood development experiment performed on kittens. In 1970, psychologists Blakemore and Cooper placed several kittens in dark enclosures that only let through vertical lines of light. Several weeks later, they removed the kittens and tested if they could see any sort of horizontal features. The kittens could not. Upon dissection, it was determined that the portion of the visual cortex involved in seeing horizontal lines was irrevocably stunted. Due to the limited stimuli available during its youth, the kitten was physically incapable of ever seeing the horizon. Shortly afterwards, the kittens were killed in an act of kindness.

Most current game developers experienced a similar form of limited stimuli during their youth. An entire generation of introverted boys was raised on 20+ hours a week of Skinnerian gameplay that emphasized content, technology, and single player puzzles. The crème de la crème became game developers. Is it any surprise that they prefer these constraints? Is it any surprise that they are stubbornly incapable of seeing alternative forms of play? Many single player game developers are like children raised in the dark and unlike a helpless kitten, they will defend and justify the validity of their disability until the day that they die.

Economic Momentum
On top of this is the fact that game developers are paid by companies heavily invested in building products based off false constraints. Their bi-weekly paycheck depends on them being passionately invested in making the games that their bosses want them to make. The innovator's dilemma whispers its seductive logic. Why change what you are doing when what you are doing keeps you warm and well fed? Especially when the upstarts are so tiny compared to your efficient mainline business. Economic momentum can turn quickly, however. Just ask the 1500 core developers laid off by EA when they realized that perhaps social gaming wasn't a tiny market after all.

The False Constraints are here to stay
I have little hope in seeing these false constraints cast off completely. Most auteurs abhor change. They stubbornly stick to their dead end craft, serving a smaller and more rarified audience while the world shifts around them. Single player games stuffed with throw away content that only runs on high end machines...these odes to introversion will never die, but they will dwindle.

It takes a new generation of impudent and crass experimenters to create real artistic change. The kids growing up on Facebook games today will barely know today's poison memes of 'beating the game', or 'the Holodeck'. Instead they'll assume that of course you play games with friends. Of course you play primarily on your phone, netbook and other devices that don't make the distinction between playing games and living your life. And of course you, the player, make the most meaningful content in the game. What games will designers raised without the chains of the past end up designing?

You can waste your life flailing at impossibly hard problems or you can make a real difference in game design right now. We are at a point where there exist vast and amazing opportunities to create meaningful games. Here are some concepts to consider if you head in this direction:
  • Human emotions are simple to evoke with games. Make multiplayer games.
  • Authorial intent is expressed through systems of rules. Create rules that empower players to co-create meaningful content.
  • Reaching larger numbers of players is easy. Integrate games into the player's everyday life.
take care

Notes 12/6/2009
This essay prompted some great comments, but I noticed two issues that I hope to help with this addendum.
  • Fear: Gamers, who love single player games, fear the loss of their hobby. This tends to elicit a passionate defense of single player gaming.
  • Lack of foundation: Some readers get caught up on some of the more basic issues and therefore have difficulty grappling with the meat of the argument. This is not your fault, but mine since this essay presents a point of view without spending the time to lay down the foundation underlying the argument. The following are some notes that should help you understand the assumptions I'm drawing upon.
Re: Can't we continue to explore the meaning in single player games?
Yes, the industry will continue to make single player games. They aren't going away and we will continue to spend billions of dollars every year in an attempt to make them more evocative, narratively rich and perhaps even meaningful. All these commercial efforts, combined with the current burst of single player focused indie game devs are bound to create more expressive and meaningful games.

  • If you like our current progress towards short intense consumable experiences
  • If you like games that focus on crafted content over games that focus on creative systems
  • If you like the trend towards turning games into warped shadow of cinema
Then you have nothing to fear. In 10 years, you'll still have games that serve your particular needs. There is a generation of men just like you and our capitalist society will serve your desires until you are no longer economically viable.

However, I believe the number of new culturally meaningful games will trickle in at a depressingly slow pace. The basic reality of our medium is that the opportunities for creating culturally meaningful games based off the three constraints listed are limited in comparison to those present if you break the constraints.

Instead of worrying about what you are losing, instead focus on what we are gaining. Imagine games that connect people together. Imagine games that improve relationships. Imagine games that solve social problems. Imagine games that create understanding. Are these outcomes really all that frightening?

Re: Emotion in multiplayer games
Many players have had poor experiences with multiplayer games due to griefing. See my recent essay on testosterone in games for some explanation of why games played with strangers are often rife with unpleasantness. On the other hand, they've had delightful experiences with single player games. On the face of personal evidence, many deem it silly to state that multiplayer games offer richer, more culturally meaningful play.

Yet a broader perspective is helpful. Personal experience, or even the experience of the community playing your favorite game is a non-representative sample of the larger trends in the industry.
  • On average multiplayer modes rate more highly in terms of fun.
  • On average multiplayer modes retain users longer and are more likely to cause players to say that they would be willing to play again.
  • During user studies, observers witness a wider range of human emotions in multiplayer games. Instead of only variations on mastery, anticipation, delight and frustration, you see trust/distrust, appreciation/hatred, sympathy/alienation and more. There are entire portions of the human emotional spectrum that are rarely triggered by single player games that become available in multiplayer designs.
  • Of the emotions observed, they tend to be more extreme. People emote more strongly and in some situations, you'll see tears, exuberant celebration and real romantic love.
  • The number of extroverts, people energized by social interaction, is around 60-70% in the general US population. Extroverts make up only around 25% in technical fields such as game development.
I have several sources for these claims

I can easily believe that a decreasing majority of existing play is indeed a solitary activity. However I see this more as a historical and cultural legacy, not a true measurement of the opportunity that lies ahead. Introverts tended to make games that other introverts enjoyed and these initial starting conditions have helped define the gamer identity. However the current game culture is fighting a losing battle against two big trends:
  • There is a competitive advantage in social play: Multiplayer games rate better on the core value proposition of 'fun'. If there are two products on the shelf and one offer a fun level of 3 and the other a fun level of 4, which one will you pick? In a competitive market, the one with the stronger value proposition tends to dominate.
  • The broader audience desires social play: New emerging markets are heavily extroverted. They desire social play. For many, games lack any significance to their lives unless they are social.
I can see the balance changing where 70% of play is social and 30% is focused on individual pursuits. Again, don't worry. Introverts will of course never go away. Even strongly multiplayer genres like MMORPGs still have a single player component.

Re: But it is just a chat room
Game designers create systems that mediate social interaction within their games. The design controls many of the communication channels, availability of certain player skills and resources, as well as access to information. The game design in a multiplayer game is the difference between a ball sitting on a field and two teams playing soccer.

Chat, or more specifically communication of intent, actions and bluffing is an essential aspect of any game involving multiple people. However, the designer still has a huge responsibility to actively shape and influence the experience. To paraphrase Lawrence Lessig, "Game Design is Law" and it has many equivalent moral and social obligations. Millions of people play multiplayer games and our designs strongly influence their behavior. To state that this form of design is 'merely chat' or 'taking the easy route out' means that you are failing to engage meaningfully with the critical concepts behind multiplayer and social game design.

Re: But Facebook games are shallow!
Yes. They are. But then again so was Pong when it first came out. As a commercial industry we have spent decades and billions of dollars on turning Pong into the AAA experiences of today. If you put yourself in the shoes of many an adult at the time that Pong came out, it too was seen as a toy.

Social games on Facebook have been out 2.5 years. That's all. Give them time. And a few billion dollars. And the passion of thousands of creative people. The end result should be quite delightful.


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Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Testosterone and Competitive Play

Lately I've been digging into research on testosterone. Over the past decade, scientists have been placing players in competitive situations and then measuring how their testosterone fluctuations predict future behavior. What you find from looking at the studies is that both winners and losers will leave your game if they are placed in a set of predictable situations involving dominance, luck, and friendship.

There are four points that have experimental support:
  1. How playing with friends affects the testosterone in winning and losing players
  2. How playing with strangers affects the testosterone in winning in losing players
  3. How perception of the role of luck or skill in the outcome affects the testosterone of players.
  4. How players differ by pro-social or pro-dominance inclination.

1. How playing with strangers affects the testosterone in winners and losers
When strangers play a competitive game based off skill, the results fit the common sense understanding of winning and losing.
  • Winner testosterone increases. Dominance and/or aggressive behavior increases. Dominance is defined as behaviors that are intended to "gain or maintain high status" (ref) Physical energy increases (and in some cases men become aroused.) Winning is exciting.
  • Loser testosterone decreases. The losing player attempts to avoid fighting the same opponent, even in situations challenges unrelated.
This is the classic description of winners and losers in a competitive game. The winners get a huge rush from beating the strangers and the losers are sent home with their tail between their legs, humiliated and subdued.

The upside
Beating strangers is a guaranteed source of entertainment. If you want a highly reliable, inexpensive means of making your game fun, toss some strangers together in a game of skill (it barely matters what sort). To boost the emotion even further, place the winners on a high status pedestal. Voila, instant fun, at least for the winners.

Typically designers look for 'fun' in a game and then build the game around what we find. The hard fun or fiero is easily detectable on the faces of the victors and acts as a clarion signal of fun. This overt signal has driven designers to create hundreds of competitive games between strangers. "Hark! Here be fun!" and we flock like moths to the flame. Our fun finding, hill climbing algorithm is predisposed to overemphasize competitive play due to the strength of the delight exhibited by winners.

The downside
Yet there are clear tradeoffs that occur when we go down this design path. Losers leave. First, they know that they cannot gain status by pursuing the game, especially against the winning players. Second, if there is some way for winners to communicate, losers are subjected to degrading displays of status. Losers may react in turn with defensive behaviors if they feel they cannot escape. Especially in games where only a few people can be winners, your player retention will suffer.

The result is an intriguing purification of the community. Only the elite winners stay around. This elite community creates an even more competitive environment that in turn creates and drives out more losers. New players attempting to enter into the community are inevitably of low skill compared to the hardened veterans and are immediately classified as losers. They also leave. Competitive games slowly boil their community down to an elitist core that actively resists and inhibits audience growth.

2. How perception of the role of luck or skill in the outcome affects players
Notice that the above case applied only to games where the loser felt that they were participating in a game of skill. The testosterone response changes when players feel they are playing in a game of luck.
  • Winner testosterone does not increase: Winners feel that their victory was not a true demonstration of superiority.
  • Loser testosterone does not decrease: Losers feel like they still have a chance of winning.
Luck is another name for an unexpected environmental factors outside the control of the player. If humans were to fall into a funk every time they lost due to the weather or an unexpected mishap, we would not have survived very long as a species. Luck turns a loss into a lesson about the environment or game mechanics, not a lesson about which player is superior to another player. As such, our innate social dominance systems fail to kick in and the social penalties from losing are avoided.

The upside
By introducing luck into a game, you can mitigate the ill effects of losing. Losers are often willing to give the game another shot. The fact that humans are notoriously poor at judging their probability of success plays out in the game designer's favor, since even poor players will think they still have a chance of winning.

The downside
Winners fail to feel the rush of victory. Strangers playing against one another in a game of luck will often complain that the game is 'cheap' or 'not a real test of skill'. Many highly competitive players will consciously avoid competitive games involving a high amount of luck since such systems reduce the psychological benefit of winning. What is the point of playing against strangers if you can't beat them into a pulp and demonstrate your dominance?

Pure competitive games of luck between strangers are rare beasts and for good reason. They manage to keep losers around, but the games hardly ever considered fun. Some gambling games may qualify (such as horse betting), yet it is telling that the vast majority of players lose.

An example
Mario Party is an example of a high luck competitive game. The game awards crazy bonuses that appear arbitrary and many games end up with the person in last place winning because they happened to have landed (randomly) on the correct square. Due to the high degree of luck is easy for losers to claim that the victory doesn't matter. The relative status of players barely changes over the course of the game.

3. How playing with friends affects the testosterone in winners and losers
So far, the the previous two studies of competition shouldn't be of much surprise to folks that have designed competitive games. However, the response of players is quite different if they consider one another to be friends. The following is what occurs if friends face off in a competitive game.
  • Winners testosterone decreases. In essence, dominance behavior dips sharply if you win in front of friends. Friends are generally are people you need to get along with in order to live your life. Imagine for a moment, if you were to win a game and then yelled at them to lick your boots (and you meant it). They probably wouldn't be your friends for very long. Our innate social response is to repress our instinctual dominance urge so as not to damage our friendships.
  • Loser's testosterone briefly falls and then recovers: The loser is under threat of being put in a low status position. However, once they receive signals that their trust in their friend is justified, they have no reason to fear a loss of status.
If dominance responses are missing, where is the fun? In general, you see both winners and losers focusing on bonding activities after a competitive game.
  • They discuss the great shared moments in the game. Shared experiences create a common ground between players that they can reference in the future.
  • They compliment one another. Compliments are often reciprocated, creating an opportunity to build mutual respect and indebtedness.
  • The winner claims they got lucky. This defuses the notion that the winner is in some way dominant or higher status. They frame the game as one of luck which makes the loser feel much better.
  • Typically, the winner does everything they can to avoid rubbing their victory in the face of the other player. And the loser does everything they can to not dwell on their loss of status. We even have names for friends that engage in inappropriate dominance behaviors. We call them 'poor winners' or 'poor losers'. Players that behave in a manner conducive to bonding are called 'good winners'. It is rare that you hear the term 'good loser' since the loser is the victim to be consoled.
  • Mutual smack talk is a form of bonding: This can be confusing for the untrained observer, because good friends will often act like they are engaging in dominance behavior by using smack talk. Yet this is just for show. The moment the smack talk actually infringes upon existing expectations of status, the mood of players will change abruptly. You'll often see accusations of one player 'taking it too seriously.' It is a good demonstration of trust to play at dominance, but to actually assert dominance between friends is considered out of bounds.
Bonding requires some form of communication channel. In a game played in a living room such as Mario Kart or a board game like Carcasonne, there are plenty of ambient opportunities. In PC games, text is the common channel. In console games, chat serves this purpose. Game mechanics can also be used as a form of in game communication. Tagging in Counterstrike is a good example of a game mechanic used to demonstrate status or shared affiliation.

The upside
With the increased popularity of couch gaming on the Wii and social gaming between friends on platforms such as Facebook, understanding the dynamics of competition between friends is critical to creating a successful game.

The most important realization is that typical form of 'fun' that we associate with competitive games is either reduced or turned into a negative experience. Competitive game play with friends becomes less about winning and more about shared experiences. This is a very different emotion. The ability to tell player stories, communicate, discuss and joke with one another are all features that enable the core delivery of value to the player. In some sense, the actual competition is secondary to the bonding that occurs around the activity. The 'fun' that comes from playing with friends is completely different than the 'fun' associated when playing with strangers.

The downside
Again, you can't rely on 'hard fun' to deliver the same jolt as you would in a competition between strangers. The simple switch from playing with strangers to playing with friends results in such a shift in player psychology that you now need to rethink your reward and communication mechanisms.

It is easy to be fooled. The mechanics of the game like Unreal Tournament when played with strangers or friends are apparently identical; you shoot and you move. Yet the experience ends up being radically different. It turns out that existing social relationships and ambient communication methods are as much a part of the game as is the level design and the bullet physics. All too often I see designers building a game that they play with their buddies on the dev team. The group knows one another, can yell out in victory and ends up having an immense amount of fun. Then that same game is released online and immediately strangers begin griefing one another and creating an actively offensive elitist environment. The social graph of the playtesters is not the same as that of the actual players. As a result, the playtest sample is massively flawed.

Here's a little chart to keep it all straight:

An example
Let's return to Mario Party. Why would anyone play a luck based competitive game that provides poor rewards for winning? One clue is that Mario Party is always played with people sitting together on a couch. It is a social game about improving your friendship, not about beating the snot out of someone. Due to the game being played in person, there is immense communication between players and almost all communication is focused on bonding over a shared experience. The key gameplay yields is social fun, not hard fun.

It is perhaps not surprising that Nintendo multiplayer franchises have been slow to move into the online world. Most Nintendo games are designed to be played with friends. Due to low concurrency, synchronous play models and a lack of scheduling, most console gaming services are populated by strangers playing with strangers. Changing the dominant type of fun that forms the core of your game changes your value proposition to the player. This is a major brand mismatch that likely needs an entirely new franchise (such as Halo), not a minor design tweak.

4. How players differ by pro-social or pro-dominance inclination
To complicate matters, there are in fact two distinct populations of players in all these studies. The first are pro-dominance players who are predisposed to react to situations in a dominant fashion. They tend to have a higher base level of testosterone in their system and their level rise or fall more strongly in situations where they win or lose.

The second group are pro-social players who are predisposed to react to competitive situations with a focus on relationship building. In general, they have a lower base level of testosterone. Intriguingly, they do not experience the same misery of failure. In some sense, they aren't playing to win so they don't mind losing. In fact, some studies suggest they even experience increased stress and reduced performance on complex cognitive tasks when they are thrust into a high status position. Winning is a punishment.

Age may also be a factor. Testosterone peaks in the late twenties and drop steadily after age 30. By age 40, 19 to 47% of males fall into the low testosterone category, depending on the accepted cut off.

The downside
From a game design perspective, this split in your population has some interesting implications. When you create a game that rewards players by winning alone, there are two groups that you fail to address. The first is of course, the losers. The second however, are pro-social players that are motivated more by forming relationships than by demonstrating status. You can give them opportunities to 'be the winner', but these rewards will fall flat.

These patterns of competition give designers some useful tools.

Note 1: Your design should explicitly differentiate between friends and strangers
You need to differentiate up front between friends and strangers in your design. If you fail to separate these two populations, you'll end up creating system that inevitably alienate multiple segments of your player base. Many of the problems stem from how communication channels are used by each group.

If you create a game for friends:
  • Winning strangers will use the communication channels intended for building reporte to instead act out their dominance and aggression urges. Teabagging is an example of a humiliation behavior that tends to encourage losers to leave.
  • Losing strangers will use the communication channels to denigrate the winners or claim luck or environmental issues were at work. This makes the winners more likely to leave since this is not the 'good job!' pat on the back they were hoping for. Instead of bowing and fame, they are greeted with yells of 'cheaters' and 'lucky'.
If you create a game targeted exclusively at strangers
  • Due to lack of communication channels, winning friends will have no way to reduce the bite of their victory. There is the risk of permanently damaging your relationship with the loser.
By separating friends from strangers, you can offer each population rewards and game mechanics appropriate to their desires. Winning strangers can be complimented in isolation. Losing strangers can be given feedback that emphasizes the luck of the situation and their increased future chance of victory. Friends can be given communication tools that allow them to bond.

Note 2: Games that focus on playing with friends result in stronger retention across a broader audience.
  • Friends encourage other friends to join since they want to share the experience with them in order to increase their bond.
  • Friends tend to encourage existing players to play more since they want to deeper their bond.
  • There is only one class of player that is alienated by bonding oriented play: pro-dominance players that are not able or willing to play amicably with friends. This is arguably a big group (upwards of ~50% of males age 14 to 39) Yet this is distinct minority in comparison to the broader population.
This insight gives some indication why asynchronous social network games grow so rapidly. People typically play with friends and are predisposed to communicate their game experiences and feel social pressure to repeat them. In contrast, competitive activities between strangers tend to result in a steady decline in player populations.

Note 3: Test with strangers and friends separately
As tempting as it is to test your multiplayer game with the readily available team playing within shouting distance, understand that you are fatally polluting your data. Larger scale online tests that allow strangers to interact and figure out how to dominate and insult one another will yield a much more realistic understanding of the culture that will evolve out of many competitive multi player game systems.

Note 4: If you must include communication channels in your online game, create a design that turns strangers into friends.
If you include rich communication channels in a competitive game, strangers will use them to exert their dominance. The way around this is to explicitly create groups where people act as friends. This leads to bubbles of cooperation even within a competitive game.
  • Assign players to a common affiliation. Counterstrike does this by having sides that you join from the start of each mission.
  • Create a common goal: Horde mode in Gears of War does this by giving players the goal of surviving the onslaught together.
  • Create a common experience of suffering or joy: In Eve Online, players partake in vast highly destructive battles. Even after vicious losses, companies still stick together since the suffering gives them a visceral common experience that strengthens their bonds.
  • Offer opportunities for reciprocation: In Left 4 Dead, players can help one another if they are in trouble.
  • Provide channels of communication: In Farmville, players can send messages to one another in game and via Facebook notifications. This helps players negotiate group norms and bond over shared experiences.
  • Allow individual choice: In WoW guilds, players actively choose to participate in a particular group. Players that allowed to choose freely will have a greater affiliation than players that are forced to rely on other players. I find designs were performance is improved with other players works better than ones where players are punished if they do not cooperate.
When we design a game, we are constantly on the lookout for 'fun'. However our ability to identify and augment fun is only as good as our mental model of what fun looks like. Our commonsense models of competition overvalues the delight expressed by winners and undervalues the reactions of other player populations. By adopting a more sophisticated model of how winners and losers react in various situations, a designer has a much better chance of knowing why their design fails and how they might fix it.

The data I've covered is not complete for all populations. For example, there are fewer studies looking at how testosterone changes in women. Though we commonly think of it as a 'male hormone', testosterone is actively produced by both sexes and appears to serve similar purposes in regards to dominance. However, not all behaviors found in men have been reliably produced in studies involving women. Nor have all the studies been validated on older populations, different cultures or children. Scientists have a tendency to use male college students because they are readily available and it is much easier to measure their testosterone. This can skew the results. The solution is to use these guidelines as a starting point and then continually test your hypothesis about competitive play. Put your game designs in front of a diverse group of players and see if they react as you expect. By looking through the lens of a richer mental model, your informed experiments will guide your game in the right direction.

My personal take on these studies is that there is vast potential for new pro-social competitive games. The market took an odd turn for a short while:
  • Early consoles involved 2 to 4 players gathered around the TV. Play was primarily social.
  • We lost the focus on playing with friends with the advent of online play and low concurrency platforms. Since we were playing with strangers, the primary class of fun switched to games of dominance.
  • The advent of social networks again allows us to target online multiplayer games at audiences guaranteed to be friends.
Now we have a fresh opportunity to design friendly competitive games that build relationships instead of breaking them down.

take care


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Friday, October 02, 2009

Flash Love Letter: The Music Video?

Nathan Germick is a brilliant fellow. He recently performed at a social games meetup in San Francisco. Apparently, he had been reading the Flash Love Letters. This is the result.

I take away the following:
  • Flash games are incredibly sexy. Don't let your wife see this or you may lose her forever to this floppy maned Flash engineer siren. Or there may be some transferal of sex appeal and the ladies will see your work in a rather exciting new light.
  • You don't need to read my original essays any more: Nathan has captured all the basics of premium Flash games right here. This is the equivalent of Cliffs Notes. So easy!
  • You should spread this video: Instead of forwarding on all those boring links to heavy essays full of text and numbers, just forward this video on to anyone who has the smallest interest in making games. You will infect them and they will be better for it.
Do you wanna buy flowers?

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Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Speaking at GDC Austin

Just a quick note. I'll be speaking at GDC Austin this Wednesday.
I'll be in Austin all week, so if you are in the area and you'd like to chat, drop me a note at danc [at]

Update: Here are a couple of links reporting on the talks
take care

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