Directory of All Essays

Sunday, March 30, 2008

The Translation Game

The Rosetta Stone: I18N's early best friend

Online games have become an international business. In order to compete in the global marketplace, your game needs to appeal to players in countries ranging from America to Japan to China to Poland. None of these cultures speak the same languages, have the same cultural values or even celebrate the same holidays. If you are starting an online game company it is wise to starting contemplating the monumental task of localizing your service as early as possible.

There are two truths about localization for online games. One, it can dramatically multiply the number of customers that you reach. Two, it is more trouble than you might imagine. In this essay I look at how we might use we use techniques from game design to streamline this exciting, yet expensive opportunity.


The good and the bad The majority of players populating online games like Legend of Sherwood, Travian or World of Warcraft are from outside the United States. We have a solid 300 million potential customers, but the rest of the world has billions. After the core game is complete, localization can help you double or quadrupal your install base for a cost far lower than developing the game afresh. This is highly attractive to those folks with dollar signs for eyeballs.

Yet localization and globalization ends up being far more than a onetime cost for translating a few text strings. Popular games pump out an ongoing stream of new content that must be rolled out across multiple languages. The original team likely doesn’t even speak the language of the targeted countries so quality control is a huge issue. Even worse, most teams have little experience with the culture of the new country they are targeting. An expansion pack that celebrates Christmas as a family event may not translate well to your Japanese users who traditionally see Christmas as a holiday for lovers.

Larger companies end up creating comprehensive localization and globalization groups that can act as a giant drag on the software development process. Localization often ends up in its own silo with radically different organization and values than the main development team.

Help (for hire)
Whenever there is a difficult problem that falls outside the core competency of a game development team, outside companies will emerge to help them solve the problem. For a fee, of course.

At the most basic end of the spectrum are translation services. These take your table of text strings and translate them into a variety of languages. Quality varies dramatically and there is typically the need to re-edit the text afterwards. Many companies start by just translating their strings and then realize that bringing their games to other countries is far more complex than a simple data manipulation problem.

At the other end of the spectrum is the full service operator. An operator is a company that takes an existing game, typically from a traditionally inward looking market like Korea or China, and runs a localized version of that game in another country such as Japan or the United States. Depending on the company, the operator will handle everything from localization, to handling foreign currency, to running foreign language support. Many will run the local servers for your game. OutSpark is a good example of an operator.

Rolling your own?
Every time you deal with middlemen, even ones as innocuous as a translation service, you need to ask the question: What is the opportunity cost of rolling my own?
  • On one end of the equation are the operators that will take a percentage of your revenue for the lifetime of the game in return for expanding your market substantially. Woot, “free” money.
  • On the other end of the equation is a custom solution. If you can reduce costs, you might come out ahead. But what if it dilutes your focus as a company? What if you end up missing out on the economies of scale and experience that come from being a company focused solely on localization?
This decision is particularly tricky since middlemen make it their business to provide you with a very clear value proposition when you are examining their services. There is rarely anyone who can put hard figures on the benefits of rolling your own. The easy solution often becomes the outsourced solution promoted by the smiling salesman.

So this got me thinking: What would it take to roll your own localization service for an online game?

Constraints
There are some constraints to this little thought experiment:
  • Inexpensive: The solution needs to cheaper than going with an outsourced group.
  • Leverages game development skills: Ideally we can leverage our core skills as a game development company. This means using game design to solve our problems, not hiring a mass of translators.
  • Doesn’t rely on building up services that other people could do better: We need to be wary about spreading the company too thin by turning into an operator in our own right. Though there may be some benefits from vertical integration, internally replicating systems that are already run efficiently by third parties is something to be approached with great care and a skeptical eye.
Research clues
At GDC, I ran across two clues that point to a solution.
  • Leverage the community: I caught some offhand comments from the fine folks over at Three Rings about alternative ways of leveraging the community in order to avoid entering into partnerships with operators. What they’ll end up doing, I have no idea. Still the seed was planted in my little monkey brain.
  • Wikipedia as a game: Elonka Dunin gave a lovely talk on how Wikipedia can be viewed like a giant MMO. The mechanics happen to focus on user generated articles instead of killing monsters, but the fundamental rewards for writing articles is fundamentally game-like. The pertinent detail here is that Wikipedia users also translate articles on a regular basis. Wikipedia is one of the most comprehensively localized websites in the entire world and all of it is due to the user’s efforts.
User generated translation driven by game mechanics
Let’s build a game that rewards multi-lingual players for localizing the text in our product. We’ve got all the necessary ingredients in your typical game:
  • Passionate players who speak a variety of different languages
  • In game reward systems that have already proven attractive to the player.
  • A mediated environment that allows us to pose tasks and record the results.
Instead of hiring expensive middlemen, we harness the volunteer efforts of our passionate players. Instead of managing the process manually, we create an automated system of empowering tools and reward systems that encourage players to do the right thing. Above all, we make the process repeatable so that we can run it over and over again at almost zero incremental cost. We are building an engine whose mechanical structure is derived from the physics of human psychology and whose brightly burning fuel is a steady stream of fun seeking players.

The reviewer pattern
Here’s a basic structure of our translation game.
  1. Identify: Identify players with base level skills are capable of performing a desired task.
  2. Action: The players perform actions using in-game tools in the hope of receiving a reward.
  3. Review: The game independently verifies the actions using other players for tasks that require human computation.
  4. Reward: The game rewards the person performing the original action based off the verification process.
  5. Repeat: High scoring people get more tasks of that type and greater rewards. Low scoring people get fewer tasks of that type.
This reviewer pattern is quite flexible and can be used for wide variety of tasks that are much broader than mere translation. It is particularly useful when you need to judge the quality of your player’s efforts and “quality” is determined by strong aesthetic or cultural factors. Language is an obvious example of this, but art, fashion, moral judgment and other classic human endeavors fall under this umbrella as well.

Let’s apply the pattern to the process of translating text.

1. Identifying players with the right skills
Our imaginary game has persistent characters with extensive profiles. People can declare their real world skills including which languages they seek. Let’s say for a moment that we want to translate between English and Japanese. We would search the profiles of our thousands of users and find ones where players claimed proficiency in both languages. These users are tagged as potential translators.

2. Performing the task
The next time the player approaches a quest giver, the game substitutes a translation quest for their typical “Kill 5 rats” quest. There are numerous framing stories one could use ranging from the scholar seeking to translate a mysterious scroll to a warlord needing an intercepted spy message translated so they can prevent an attack.

Promise of a reward: The player is told that if they complete the task they’ll get a certain amount of gold. If they complete the task well, they’ll be inducted into the secret Guild of Translators.

Task specific tools: If the player accepts the task they are presented with a screen that shows them the original text and a space where they can translate it into Japanese. They type in a translation, hit submit and get the basic translation rate. They are informed that qualified reviewers will be looking at their translation and we’ll let them know if they make it into the secret Guild.

On the backend, every text string of every object can be pulled from a set of string tables that have slots for all supported languages. You need a system that supports multi-byte characters, various text orientations, IME input and all the rest of the glorious minutia that goes into localizing simple strings.

To generate the quest, we look at popular items that aren’t translated into languages for which we have translators available. A few strings, such as the name or the description are bundled up and given to the player as the source material they need to translate.

3. Review the results
The vast majority of translations will be of poor quality. This is the reality of free labor done as an idle hobby. We want to separate the truly talented reviewers from the masses so that we can ultimately put them on a pedestal as an example for everyone to strive towards. In the process of tagging our translators, we also tagged people who spoke Japanese.

Again, we give these tagged users quests. This time they need to read the text and rate it quality on a 7 point scale. There is also a small text field where they can type in comments. They are also told that they’ll get a bit of money for doing the task, but they’ll get even more money if they do it well.

Unbeknownst to the individual reviewer, we also give the same text to 10 others to review. We collect all the scores, lop off any outliers and calculate the average score. This is the rating for the translated text.

Translations that get ratings above a certain threshold (such a 6 out of 7), are automatically published to the world at large.

4. Reward the translators and reviewers
Translator rewards: Once the final score for the translation is determined, the original translator receives a message that contains a quality reward. If they scored 6’s and 7’s, they get huge rewards and are inducted into the Guild of Translators. They get a special cloak, and are promised future awards if they continue to do such a wonderful job translating. If they score lower, they get lesser rewards and may not be invested into the Guild. They are given a second chance as well as access to the comments that were left by the reviewers.

Reviewer rewards: We also reward reviewers based off the quality of their reviews. Those players scoring closest to the average score get mega points and an increase in their reviewer level. Those players that scored furthest from the average get no points and their reviewer level can even drop. Over time, competent reviewers whose opinions reflect the majority should rise to the top. When we calculate average scores for a particular bit of text, we can use weighted averages that take into account the level of the reviewers involved.

5. Repeat the process
Whenever text is added to the system, the translation system jumps to action. Translation quests are generated, translators translate them and reviewers review the results. Over time the text of the game is slowly but surely translated into other languages, driven by the demand and passion of the users.

The system is built to constantly improve the results. The highly rated translators and reviewers are showered with in game gifts and rewards. They gain levels, get new outfits and are given kudos by NPCs. We feed them stats on how many people use their translations and look for ways to promote their efforts to the larger community. Each of these rewards is automated and repeatable. In return for these social glories, the system gives highly rated translators more translation tasks. We want the best of the best handling most of the translation.
As time passes, many users will try translation and find that it isn’t for them. That’s alright as long as there is a core group of people that latch onto the job and make it into a fundamental part of their online identity. The system is built to support this natural winnowing process in order to build up an elite core. A dozen or so passionate users can translate hundreds, even thousands of pieces of text in relatively short order.

Popular pieces of text with lower scores are resubmitted to elite translators for another pass. As time goes on, the quality of the translations throughout the game continues to improve.

Benefits
This is a complex system, but it comes with some intriguing benefits.
  • Focus on core competency of game design: It is a reasonable amount of work building this localization system, but it leaves your company with a very solid reward system that can be leveraged for other areas of the game. You are investing in game design and player entertainment, both of which are core competencies for any game company.
  • Serve smaller cultures at low cost: There exist numerous cultures in the world that speak languages other than English, French, German, Spanish, Chinese or Japanese. Dozens of nations like Poland or Brazil can contribute hundreds of thousands of users to your game. By allowing players to translate the game into their own language, you can reach these niche cultures at a very low cost.
  • Adapt your text to each culture: Many concepts don’t translate well between cultures. By having the users perform the translation, they will often smooth over rough edges. If a particular joke or phrase doesn’t work, users will reword it to something that fits their culture. Often, users will take liberties and incorporate references to their own mythology or culture into the translations. It is an interesting trade off. You give up a small amount of authorial control in return for a translation that seems as if it was written by native speakers.
  • Highly scalable: Once a community of translators is in place you can release content in one language and watch it quickly and cost effectively be translated into other languages. The cost of localizing an additional piece of content goes to almost zero.
Limitations
This system is not without some pretty serious limitations.
  • Requires a large number of people: To get to those few dozen people who are interested in translating your game, you’ll need a population of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands. Only a very small number of people will be interested in playing your translation game.
  • High startup cost: You need to develop and balance this system. That is expensive and will likely require dozens of iterations on the design.
  • Questionable translation quality: There is a very good chance that the majority of your early translations are incorrect, confusing or insulting. You won’t be able to tell since you don’t speak the target language. This means that when the system isn’t balanced just right, your users may have bad experiences. Also, as mentioned above, you are giving up a certain amount of authorial control. Your epic bodice ripper about the Monks of Ra may turn into a joke gag about Swedish meatballs. C’est la vie.
  • The process moves at the pace of the players: If the players don’t find translation quests interesting or there aren’t many multi-lingual people on your service, translation will lag.
Other pieces
As stated earlier translating text strings is only a piece of the puzzle. To solve the whole puzzle, we can repurpose some of the systems that we created for the tranlation game.

Pieces to own: These are items that you should try to maintain control over.
  • Culture specific events: Combining the review system with tools that let users create their own events is one way to go. This moves you down the path of user generated content, which is a giant can of worms, but again has substantial benefits if you can pull it off. This would likely follow the same review pattern we saw with translation, except instead of translating text, you are asked to build something grand.
  • Culture specific support: Griefing, bugs, currency issues are all best dealt with by a support team that speaks the player’s native language. There has already been some solid work done with volunteer judges and moderators and it makes a lot of sense to invest in this further in the future. Giving player judges the ability to review past grievances, render judgment and then have their judgment reviewed by a jury of randomly selected peers is an obvious profession worth creating. It would likely appeal to a substantial minority of the player population since it involves direct power over others. Again, problem tickets are handled as quests and we slowly give people more power based on the quality of their previous efforts.
Pieces to outsource: Some things like payment systems and local servers, you’ll likely have to outsource to middlemen. Yet out of all the middlemen activities offered by operators, I’m most willing to let them take on these two. Why? Because they both becoming more commoditized by the year. Costs of running servers all around the world are going down, while reliability is going up. As cloud computing and virtualization become more dominant, the last place you want to be investing your valuable cash is in replicating the core business of the likes of Amazon, Microsoft, Google, Sun and a half dozen other future cloud computing behemoths.

There’s a rule of thumb here. Let the middlemen handle the commoditized plumbing, but don’t let them near your customer relationships. Your community and your addicting game design is your unique competitive advantage.

Conclusion
Ultimately, building something like a translation game for your service is a business decision. I believe that you should treat the decision to create a utilitarian social game system in a similar fashion to how you would treat the decision to make a capital investment in your company. It resembles a classic business problem: choose the proper mix of the following:
  1. High variable costs with low capital investment: You rely heavily on manual labor to make each widget. You don’t have much in the way of equipment so it costs you an arm and a leg to build each widget.
  2. Lower variable cost with high capital investment: Alternatively, you can invest in capital expenditures like beefy factory equipment. Capital investments cost a lot of money upfront. However, longer term, they can dramatically reduce your variable costs.
Building systems such as our translation game are remarkably similar to capital investments from the ancient age of manufacturing. They are expensive to develop and balance. They have a significant maintenance cost. Yet, they dramatically reduce the costs of servicing another customer in a foreign country. Instead of paying 30 to 60% of a customer’s revenue to a middleman, you instead end up paying a few pennies for bandwidth.

In the case of a game development company, the building of the equipment that reduces your costs also happens to be your core competency. You are good at manipulating players to volunteer their time and energy to complete obscure tasks. You are good at building enjoyable software and task oriented tools that facilitate the creation of these tasks. It is time to put these assets to work.

So what happens when you use game design to improve the way your run your business? The future online game is a complex digital factory filled with powerful social engines that chug and churn throughout the night. The workers funnel in one end, and out the other comes the high quality fruits of their carefully guided labor. This is no dystopia. The workers are volunteers and the factory is a playground. If they become bored, the players leave. But most do not, for the machine knows too well to their subtle human weaknesses. And, you, the builder of the great machines that measure and prod and coddle humanity in endless loop upon loop, sleep soundly as the money rolls on in.

Take care,
Danc.

References



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Saturday, September 01, 2007

Celestial Music


Yesterday morning I woke up from one of those startlingly lucid dreams where I was playing a completed game design. I tell my wife that odd ideas are like exotic fruit and if you fail to jot them down, they will rot away, never to be tasted again. So here are my quickly captured notes of what is, literally, a dream game of mine. :-)

Imagine, if you will, a space strategy game. You start out with a single planet surrounded by hostile enemy planets. Your goal is to clear the map of enemies and create a galaxy spanning civilization. All pretty standard stuff.

The difference is that you fight and grow using music that you compose by building your empire. This is where it gets trippy.



Planets as sequencers
Watch this movie clip of a multi-touch music creation tool. It is wonderfully bizarre.




The basic gist, multi-touch madness aside, is that smart objects positioned on a flat screen can be used to create music. Link them together using a directed graph and you have a pretty competent music sequencer and sound effects generator.

The game design leap is that these objects can also be planets in a strategy game. Each planet has a different effect.


  • Forest planets are sources for sound effects
  • Water planets are filters for distorting a sound.
  • Cities planets are sequencers for taking a sound stream and playing it out over time.
Throughout the design, you’ll see that every element can be seen in two ways. One is as an element of a song. Two is as part of a game.

Linking planets
Each planet has a space port. You can drag a space lane from a space port to another nearby planet.


In the process, you connect a sound source to a sound processor. In very short order, just by linking up space lanes, you can create a giant sequenced sound machine. At the same time, you are directing trade and setting up your space empire.

Setting properties on planets

Each planet is a fanciful user interface that lets you adjust the properties of the filter.
  • Planets have a sun. You can adjust the time it takes for the sun to go around the planet in order to adjust the timing of how long a sound plays. In the game this is described as planetary engineering
  • Distance from the other planets effect the volume of the source sound effect.
  • City planets allow you to adjust the height of the cities, thus allowing you to adjust how you sequence a sound source.


Music = culture = resource
Each planet produces a sound. Some generate sounds. Others take in sounds and modify them. The stream of sounds produced by your planets is what most folks would call music. It also represents ‘culture’ in the game. Culture is the resource that makes everything in the game work.

Culture pools in planets that are the final destination of sound streams. They collect it in real time. Culture can be spent on upgrading your planets and creating war ships, defending against attacks.

The enemy does not sleep
You are not alone in the universe. There are other planets on the fringes of your empire. They send ships to destroy your civilized worlds and knock them back into desolate husks. They’ll disturb your carefully calculated rhythms, disrupt trade routes and generally cause your empire to devolve into chaos, then silence.

If a planet is attacked enough, it will be turned into a dead world, devoid of music.

Spending culture
Luckily, you can use your culture to both defend, fight back and ultimately conquer the enemy planets.

Some planets have industrial complexes. An activated industrial complex sucks in culture and converts it into ones of three main types of ships
  • Defenses: The planet builds a shield for fending off enemy attacks. It can take X damage per second. Defenses tend to beat equally matched ships.
  • Attack ships: The planet can send out a stream of attack ships. If the planet is poorly defended, the planet is slowly bombed into the stone age and reduced to a simple forest planet.
  • Ambassadors: Ambassadors convert dead planets into player planets.
At first you defend against attacks. Then you fight back. Eventually you conquer the enemies and make their worlds yours.

The benefits of conquest
Conquest is great. Capturing new worlds allow you to build more complex sequences of sound. This means more interesting songs. It also means that culture accumulates faster and allows you to expand your empire further.

Some planets have tidbits of plot, mysteries, single use powerups, treasures and other rewards. Conquest advances the player in the game.

Culture is multiplied by audience appreciation
An empire is a song. As a song it can be shared with your friends outside of the game. At any point, you can send a link to your empire to a friend. They can check it out and simply by the act of listening to your song, your empire gains marvelous bonuses.

If they like, your friends can rate the song. This gives you even more bonus culture. If they like the style of your songs, they can subscribe to your various empires. This gives you even more bonus. By sharing your creations with the outside world, you gain resources that let you advance your single player game.

A game that encourages the creation of great songs
The game is balanced to encourage this. During the early stages of creating your empire, there is enough culture in random combinations of planets to conquer a fair portion of the map. Eventually, you start running out of culture. You’ll come across powerful enemies that you cannot defeat unless you start sharing your songs with others.

Good songs, as judged by an audience of your peers, will gain you greater rewards than random garbled messes of sound. Judging music is hard for a computer. However, it is easyier for people. The design harnesses your friends as our AI judgment algorithm to encourage and reward the user to become a great composer.

Some maps can be explored and beaten if the player creates songs that are enjoyed by one or two people. Other maps require that the player create songs that are loved by hundreds.

The enemy as a tutorial
The map creation for the game is tricky since it serves two purposes. The first is to provide a challenge to the player. This is pretty straight forward level design and deals with choke points, resources, power ups etc.

The second, more devious goal, is to teach the player compositional structures. The enemy worlds are a nodal graph of a song just like the player’s worlds are a graph of a song. The level designer composes the enemy empire as a song.

All the various tricks of making a song are there for the player to see. The way that you distort a basic sound into something intensely cool. The way that you use a sequencer plus a snare sample to create the beat. All of it is visually laid out as a working model for the player.

When the player conquers the enemy worlds, they are essentially deconstructing the level designer’s song filter node by filter node. The player is then asked to put their newly acquired node to use. The easiest thing would be to replicate what was already done.

What we have is an experiential lesson in music composition masquerading as a game.
  • The player observes a functional model.
  • They dissect the model to understand its parts
  • They are required to reassemble the model and make it work again.
  • They are rewarded for making something better than the original.
Conclusion
I finally got around to reading Rules of Play by Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman. The tome repeatedly emphasizes that you can analyze a single game through multiple perspectives. Celestial Music is a game that is two things simultaneously. It is a strategy and it is a music creation tool. It is also, by the fact that is both of these things, a system for exploring and learning music in a user friendly manner.

Games lubricate experiential learning about a system. Plunk an inexperienced person down in front of a piano and some sheet music and they will become frustrated. Sit that same person down in front of a game like Celestial Music and they will slowly learn. The result may not be Mozart, but it will certainly be music.

As I awoke groggily from my dream yesterday, I was left with the amazing memory of playing this quirky game. Sound and visuals flowed throughout the screen like some clockwork instrument pulse with life. There was no real distinction between building something beautiful and playing an enthralling game. Delightful.

Take care
Danc.


References

Human computation
Humans are far better at some activities than computers. Luis von Ahn is a computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon that studies how to tap into the abilities of people to solve hard problems like image recognition or human identification. He uses games as his medium. The fact that people are better than computers at determining what is meaningful music is leveraged in the Celestial Music design.
http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-8246463980976635143

The Rules of Play
I rather enjoyed this book's emphasis on the Magic Circle and how it interacts with culture at large.
http://www.amazon.com/Rules-Play-Game-Design-Fundamentals/dp/0262240459/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1/102-3229846-3699357?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1188672917&sr=8-1


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Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Flashlight computer

Where are the wacky mixtures of new technology that fundamentally change the way we interact with computers? A next generation cell phone is imagined as a phone with cooler buttons. A next generation computer is seen as just another computer you sit in front of except the buttons are shiny. It is time for a flight of fancy, something that is shockingly rare in the world outside of rarified blogs (and perhaps Nintendo's hallucinogenic research labs.)

Here’s an idea called the Flashlight Computer that came to me this morning. It is a small portable computer that mixes camera technology, image processing, high intensity portable projectors and motion sensitive pointing devices to create a unique and intuitive human-computer interface.

Imagine a handheld computer that you point at a wall like a flashlight. A built in project illuminates a portion of your virtual workspace. At the center of the screen is your pointer. As you move your hand, the image naturally moves across the wall.


Now for the fun part. The image is constantly recalculated so that instead of moving with projector, it gives the illusion that it is painted onto the wall. As you move your computer, it acts as a flashlight, revealing new sections of your virtual workspace. A projector that displays a 3 square foot projection are turns a wall into a usable 80 square foot workspace.



Here’s how it works
  • The projector displays registration marks on the wall.
  • The device has a built in camera much like the Eye Toy that capture the registration marks at 120 FPS
  • Image processing determines the perspective distortion of the image and alters the projector’s image so that it looks rectangular from the perspective of the user.
  • As the user moves around, motion is tracked (either through image processing or internal gyroscopes) and the image on the wall is updated to make it appear as if the projector is revealing more of the workspace. To the user it appears as if you are panning across a single larger image. You literally illuminate your works space as you move.
Combine this with a simple onscreen pointer and a button for clicking and you have one powerful pointing device. It can be used anywhere, on any flat surface. You have full mouse capabilities including clicking, dragging and dropping, etc. It can be used to create a virtual world in a real space and it can also be used to augment the current world with virtual information.

What is it good for?
Here are some potential uses:
  • Create the world’s largest continuous desktop. “Where did I leave that file? Oh, that’s right, I stored it in the other corner of the room.”
  • Show walking directions at night. Shine the projector on the ground. It not only illuminates your path during the night, but it uses high resolution mapping information to paint a path that you can follow to your destination.
  • Show complex wiring, pipes, etc inside a building by shining your flashlight at the wall and seeing the interior
  • Games. There are entire universes of games that involve more than just sitting on your rump watching a mundane TV. For starters, just imagine playing an RTS title. Your entire house becomes a canvas.
Ideally, this control device is simple to use, under the user’s complete manual control and highly applicable to a wide range of applications. It would be easier to adopt than a head mounted display that is constantly attached to your noggin. It is much more flexible and convenient than being confined to a desk.

When will it be possible?
The technology to do this is a ways off. Portable projectors of the type needed are likely 20 years away. Computing power will get to the appropriate level in the next 5 years. Digital video cams are close as well. None of this technology is new. It just needs to mature and be integrated into a single system.

I can imagine that such a flashlight computer would be quite a thrill to use. :-)

Take care
Danc.

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Friday, May 12, 2006

ComicAll: A social board game design

Here is a little social comic creation game that just occurred to me as I was day dreaming in the shower. I loved Tadhg’s recent post about interviewing game design candidates with a test and it got me thinking. Unfortunately, If I actually was in a real interview, it appears I would have to rush off to a shower in order to do my best work. Wet candidates…part of the trials and tribulations of interviewing game designers.

This board game design is very small riff off the last Viki post. It is probably closest to Pictionary, but without the requirement that people know how to draw. Honestly I meant to write about e3 instead this morning. C’est la vie.

I should note that I haven’t played this yet, so it is at the untested prototype stage. That means it is highly unlikely to work the first play through and will need major tweaking. Still, I’ll toss it out there.

Overview
3 - 4 players.
You have a series of faces, word bubbles and interesting props. You goal is to make a hilarious comic with your friends.

Tokens

  • A set of 30 faces, word bubbles and interesting stamps. Some are blank and can be drawn on. The stamps are made out of dry erase board.
  • Erasable markers
  • 3 minute timer
  • 4 1 point cards
  • 4 2 point cards
  • 4 3 point cards
  • A score card
  • A small paper tiara
Setup

  • All stamps are spread out face up on the table.
  • Each player is dealt 1 of each type of voting card. They should end up with three cards with values of 1, 2 and 3 points.
Turn Structure
A turn is split into three phases
  • Picking Phase
  • Placing Phase
  • Voting Phase
Picking phase: We go

  • Players pick up two stamps.
  • They get to write on the stamps with an erasable marker (or pencil in the prototype) if they wish to customize them.
  • There is a timer such that all players can take no more than 3 minutes.
Placing phase: I go, you go

  • The players then go around the room clockwise and place their stamps
  • The person in last place gets to place first. If it is the first turn, the player who most recently had a birthday goes first during the placing phase.
  • Players are encouraged to laugh.
Voting phase: We go

  • Players get several voting cards ranging from 1 to 3 points. If there are three players, they get three cards. If there are four players, they get four cards.
  • They give out voting cards face down to each one of their opponents.
  • All voting cards are turned over simultaneously. The players count up their score and place it on the score board next to their name.
  • Voting cards are re-dealt to people.
  • The turn ends and starts anew.
How long the game lasts

  • The game continues for 4 turns
Determining the winner

  • The simplest solution is to just add up all the points and declare a winner.
  • The winner gets to wear the little paper tiara until the next game or until the game is put away. They are not allowed to take the tiara home or go to bed with it. Unless this is the sort of social gathering that promotes such naughty behavior.
Optional rule: The Goomber
  • Many games have a goomber. They are that one person who will not play because they are busy or they don’t like games. They sit on the couch and read or fiddle about in the kitchen when everyone else is having a great time. Sometimes they are mothers. Other times, they are little brothers.
  • The Goomber has an important roll to play. If a Goomber exists, they are brought in at the end of the game. They are required to judge what the funniest portion of the picture. No player is allows to tell them who placed what.
  • Who ever placed this portion of the picture gets 12 bonus points. If more than one person participated, the points are split evenly.
Optional rule: Drinking rules
  • Each turn, the person with the lowest score for that turn takes a drink. They can specify one other person to drink with them in order to share the joy of drinking.
  • The standard amount that is consumed per drink is up to the team and is determined at the beginning of the game. A half shot per turn seems reasonable.

If anyone gets to try this game out, let me know. I'm thinking that the 'stamps' can mostly be just little smiley faces and word bubbles. Perhaps I'd also have a duck or an unfortunately drawn stalk of asparagus to spice things up. For prototyping the first version, I was just going to use index cards, a pencil and some scissors.

Take care
Danc.

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Monday, May 08, 2006

Viki: A visual wiki design

Remember when you were a young and you drew epic images on giant rolls of butcher paper? The little boys would draw cool spaceships and army men battling one another in landscape full of tunnels, fortresses and lots of explosions. The little girls, with their surprisingly superior sense of color, drew fish, rainbows, and people. You didn’t worry about your drawing skills. You just doodled for the fun of it.


The best part was either a study hall or perhaps when you had one of your friends over. You’d grab a whole sheet of paper and you’d each start doodling on part of it. He’d draw some massive star destroyer that was about to take out your very nifty fighting ship. Naturally, you’d unleash your fighter’s super powerful “Mega-Zapo-Cannon” which would result in a giant explosion. You told your story and mashed it all up with your friend’s story. Half the fun was making up nifty scenes with ninjas, robots, spaceships and more. The other half was seeing what your friend managed to think up.

These paper mashups were a quirky upwelling of that primordial communal artistic pulse that lies within all of us. At a very basic human level, it is joyful to create cool intricately detailed images and share them with your friends.

Viki is a design for a communal art mash up that riffs upon those simple butcher paper drawing sessions from long ago. It is a game design and community site that can be made by anyone with some solid AJAX skills.


Web 2.0 games
I’m a big fan of modern software development tools, especially ones like the Web 2.0 technologies or Flash that allow rapid development of web applications without a heavy investment in expensive infrastructure. Server space is cheap and the tools are free or very low cost. More importantly, the mechanisms for communication and collaboration are built into the basic infrastructure of the platform. With a bit of brains, a lot of hard work and a very solid sense of marketing, there are oodles of opportunities for upcoming game developers.

The trick, however, is not about trying to replicate Space Invaders or Doom. Instead we need to create game designs that take advantage of the unique characteristics of the platform. Here is a hypothetical design exercise. Imagine you’ve been handed a piece of rope, three sticks and a duck. Your goal is to make a game out of this arbitrary collection of technologies and capabilities. If you try to replicate Doom, I guarantee that you’ll fail.

If you work within the constraints of the platform, some genius will create a game that is surprisingly addicting. It turns out that there are lots of things you can do with a duck.

The challenge with the web is the same story with different pieces. When you are developing for a new platform, you need to toss out the old genres and improvise some new ones.

What is a Viki?
A Viki in its most basic incarnation is a visual wiki. Instead of creating pages of words that are hyper linked together, the users create pages of images that are hyperlinked together. Think of it as the ultimate sticker book mash up.

You start with a set of stamps. Some of these are primitives like squares and circles. Others are text boxes. Others are clip art of spaceships, aliens, castle walls, and oddly attractive cucumbers. You can place and arrange any of these stamps on a canvas. This canvas is your very first, very personal page.



You can create more pages by selecting an object and saying that it is a link. Viki will ask you if you want to create a new page or link to an existing one. If you type in the name of a new page, voila…you have a new page that you can navigate to and start filling up.



Now the cool thing is that each page generates a thumbnail that is added to your stamp collection. Simply by creating new pages, you end up creating new stamps.




Viki is communal
A viki is a communal space. Anyone can go to a page and edit it provided that they have the correct permissions. Most folks claim that they can’t draw to save their life. However, if we provide easy-to-use tools and we provide strong social rewards to people for being creative, all sorts of creative sparks are bound to flourish. A little admitted lesson that many artists understand is that creativity is dramatically enhanced by peer pressure.

In addition to the communal reward systems, Viki also has a full suite of wiki features such as version control, recent changes and comments on changes. This helps people manage the Viki quite nicely.

Technology
The entire application runs in a browser with the data stored asynchronously on the server. For the user, there are very low barriers to entry since there is no install and no heavy download. Even the interface is simplified. Users don’t have to know Photoshop or Illustrator. They don’t need to spend years mastering the art of placing a line on paper. They browse to a URL and start creating.

There are also some nice bits for the developer here. Since we are using very simple technology, the prototype could be whipped up in a few nights of programming by an intermediate skill AJAX coder. Can you place a transparent gif with a CSS div and store it in a database? My friend Harold mocked up a basic proof of concept in a night of playing with Ruby on Rails.

Some of the more complex features such as thumbnail generation require server side image processing. This is not rocket science, merely work.

Someone I know once claimed that art programs will never make it onto the web. I call BS on this dinosaur thinking. :-) The trick is finding an application that benefits from web technology instead of attempting to shoehorn Photoshop into a web browser.

The game
So far, I’ve described an interesting toy, but not a game. Instead of laboriously iterating through potential design specs, I want to tell you a story about this design. It is an attempt to capture the feeling of playing the game. This provides a starting vision for the next stage of creating a new core mechanic through intensive iterative prototyping.

There are five main stages to our tale.
  • Discovery: How the player finds the world.
  • The Hook: Why makes the player want to dig further into the game?
  • The Feedback: What are the feedback systems that encourage deeper play?
  • The Store: How does this title make money?
  • The Source of Content: How do we provide the player with new content so they stay?
The Discovery
Harvey, an avid MySpace user discovers the NinjaGarden.com while browsing around looking for something ‘cool.’ Harvey is a rather normal kid of about 14 who enjoys doodling in his notebooks. He isn’t the best artist in the world, but that has never stopped him. He thinks the name is hilarious and the artwork on the site is rather fun.

There are dozens of very interesting stories on the site and he becomes enthralled in a particularly fascinating one about Mickey Mouse as a blood thirsty master ninja. The fact that someone took a worn out icon and made it authentic and edgy rocks his world.

The Hook
As Harvey digs deeper into the stories, he hits a wall that encourages him to register. Once he is registered, he has his own account that gives him energy points. He can keep reading until he runs out of energy points. The only way to get more energy points is to rank pages or start a story of his own.

He spies a story thread that he really like and creates a link off of one of the main scenes.

A new canvas opens up and he starts plunking down some of the basic elements in the basic collection. There are ninja cats, giant robots and naturally retro spaceships with fricking laser beams. And you can type rude things.

The Feedback
Other people start viewing Harvey’s new page. They dig it and offer comments. He is feeling popular and making new friends who appreciate what his creation. Reading stories is fun, but social interaction with real people is intoxicating.

Whenever someone visit or ranks his page, they leave energy points behind. These boost Harvey’s points which lets him read more. They also encourage him to create new pages. As Harvey’s page gets more readers who rank and comment on his work, he gains a reputation.

Some of the really popular pages make it to onto the “Garden of the Day” list. This means thousands of users are likely to check it out. Harvey begins to dream of one day reaching such heights.

The Store
The original set of stamps is rather limited. It turns out that there are lots more out there that you can buy using extra energy. Some of them are quite rare and a few you need to buy with a combination of energy and real money.

Harvey buys a set or two of professionally drawn Mickey images. They only cost him a five or six bucks and they let him create much more in-depth scenes.

The Source of New Content
It turns out that the stamps of Mickey and friends are created by a lass named Aya. At age 17, she is an excellent illustrator and delights in seeing what people create with her artwork.

She gets half the money that Harvey spends. There are two hundred other people that also bought her work and she just received a check for $150. That will pay for a very cute pairs of shoes. More importantly, she is famous. Her online reputation is reflected directly in the reputation of the pages that are created with her artwork. Perhaps it is only on one site with a small group of people. But it feels good to have people respect her and her art. She would not give that feeling up for the world.

Now the circle of content is completed. The few highly creative people provide a seed that encourages others to be creative. The result is an explosion of content that acts as a magnet for additional potential customers.

Is this a game?
You’ll notice that this is not a traditional electronic game where you shoot things. Some traditionalists might argue that it is not a game at all. On the surface, it has more in common with Wikipedia or Slashdot than your typical first person shooter.

Yet all the basic pieces are in place for a rousing social game. You have user created worlds where the act of consuming stories and creating stories are the game play verbs. You have a robust feedback system complete with strong goals for players to strive towards.

Viki is to traditional games as Charades is to Chess. It is a social sandbox game played by creative people.

Future Extensions
This is just a sketch of the basic Viki system. In the future, there are numerous styles of play that you can support with the same engine:
  • Living world: By building logic into the stamps, you can have a world that grows as you play. Logic can take into account the position of stamps and their time on the canvas. Trees can grow, characters can change facial expressions, etc. Drawing becomes a more involved act similar to gardening.
  • Combat: With the addition of basic Javascript-based collision detection, you can add a turn based system where players place object that attack one another. The pace of the game is such that the collisions only need to be detected one per click and can be calculated offline if necessary. The goal of the game is to build the coolest image while damaging the other side’s pieces.
  • Comic creator: Any time people put down images and text, they tell stories. Wouldn’t it be enjoyable to let people subscribe to a particular author’s canvas and encourage them to create a series of online comics. Think of it as a comic blog (a clog?).
  • Product design: With a viki, we have a system where larger numbers of people collaborate on complex multi-dimensional designs. Imagine a dozen participants with the best ideas percolating to the surface due to the built-in ranking system. Suppose that you are dealing with a design for a three hundred page website. A viki becomes your essential sketch pad and its contents are sorted by the wisdom of the masses.
Conclusion
I have several more of these ‘alternative’ game designs lurking in notebooks and half finished essays. I’m sharing them for two reasons.

First, most of the designs I’ll suggest are pretty inexpensive to implement and some folks may enjoy noodling with them as projects. To this end, I’m providing all source files from my mockups. Use and abuse as you desire as long as you include my name and a link back to this article. I'd be happy to publicize any fun experiments on this website. Click here to download the source images (1.2 MB)

Second, I want to encourage folks to think outside of the box when it comes to game designs. Not all casual web games need to be Match Three variants. There is an infinite universe of fascinating social games that have barely been explored. Some smart cookie is going to create an amazing entertainment phenomenon using tools that have been readily available to millions. They’ll be willing to try something new and when they do, everyone else will wonder why they failed to think of it first.

take care
Danc.

References
The quote that inspired the game
“My top five favorite things to do as a kid:
5) Play army
4) Walk the rail road tracks and explore wilderness.
3) Make weapons.
2) Build stuff with Legos.
1) Draw epic spaceship battles on 100 feet stretches of computer paper.”

- Robert 'Apache' Howarth on VoodooExtreme
http://ve3dboards.ign.com/Message.aspx?topic=23127087

Photoshop tennis
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Photoshop_tennis

Note on Legal Issues:
In any title that has user created content played by minors, there are legal issues. Luckily, other sites have been dealing with these for many years so the solutions are straight forward.
  • Collection of data from children under 18
  • Report problematic images. Quite likely these are tagged with a nudity tag and then just culled from under 18 imagery and searches.


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Wednesday, August 24, 2005

News: China restricts MMOG playing time

You know, I'm seriously starting to love China's attitude to MMOGs. It is a precursor to how governments will attempt to influence many immersive online activities managed by a legal entity. The opportunities for abuse of civil rights is both delightfully immense and ill defined. Yet, because we are talking about virtual worlds any abuse that occurs is purely voluntary. Is this a victimless crime?

Admittedly, the owners of the MMOG have complete control over all parts of the player's online life. But because the players can leave at any point in time, it is not deemed a coercive relationship. Due to this aspect of the medium, the people I talk with seems quite comfortable with the limited civil rights available to online game players. It is just a game after all.

At some point however, rules and restrictions have real world implications. We are beginning to see online businesses spring up inside online communities. There will never be a complete virtualization of our lives, but the connections between our online worlds and the real world will growth much stronger. Some areas of potential abuse spring immediately to mind:
  • Is role playing in a game an activity that falls under the category of freedom of speech?
  • If real money is spent on virtual goods, can the government tax those goods?
  • Can the government take the goods or delete the player's character on a whim?
  • Can the government tie real world punishments into virtual activities?
  • How much control does the government have when 90 - 100% of your finances are derived from virtual activities?
What I love is that China really doesn't care about any of this. An online game is social gathering spot that must be controlled like any other. They are going to do everything in their power that they can do based of the whims of the powerful minority. They'll do it out fear and out of good will at first. Many Chinese parents are honestly worried about their children. But once power is exercised, it is just a matter of time before it is used for less savory motivations.

My hope is that we'll get to see a full spectrum of greed, racial abuse, and other misuses of power. In the best of all worlds, observers in more democratic states get to witness the world's first large scale virtual human rights abuses without having to suffer the results directly.

I'm not being heartless here by any means. I'm merely trying to make predictions based off the lessons of history.

History suggests that humans are simple creatures when it comes to moral issues. We need to touch the stove to realize that it is hot. We also forget every generation or two and need to touch the stove again just to make sure. It took a couple of atomic bombs and tens of thousands of innocent deaths to realize that nuclear science thing might need to be regulated. It took dozens (hundreds)of genocidal events culminating in WWII for people in more enlightened groups to codify the eradication of racism. History suggests that people will need to be hurt badly and in large numbers for us to put limits on governmental control over online societies.

Why online worlds are at risk
Civil rights abuses occur when the group in power attempts to control a social and economic environment by harming, embarrassing and restricting individuals who do not toe the line. Online games are prime targets because they are potential forums for dissent and organization outside the government's control. Eventually some amoral (not immoral) group is going to take advantage of the easy regulation of online communities to impose real world civil rights abuses.

We are starting to see the first few steps in that direction. Initially it will be imprisonment because you broke curfew. We are there right now. Next there will be segregation and identification requirements for 'at risk' populations. It isn't that hard to implement tracking and behavioral control in an online environment. To the user, it will be just the way things are done.

As with all civil rights abuses, the abused will be voluntary participants during the early stages. It is easier to play with the time limits than it is to complain. It will be easier to provide your identification than it will be to cheat. In theory you could leave, but the social and economic penalties won't be worth paying.

In fact, the voluntary aspects of MMOG's offer no protection against abuse. No one put physical chains on post-Civil war sharecroppers. In the early days of the 3rd Reich, no one forced the majority (though certainly a minority) of Jews to wear stars for identification purposes. Yet no one will deny that these populations were coerced. Physical force is only one type of chain. When the social and economic penalties for online societies become real everything will be in place to implement strong civil controls.

There is a small ray of hope in this picture I'm painting (and I say this with no small dose of cynicism.) Online worlds put one more tool at a dictator's disposal that doesn't involve mass violence. So what if a small minority lives as slaves? At least they aren't getting shot.

I love China because their actions serve as a warning to the rest of us. Let us watch them carefully and learn.

Take care
Danc

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Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Movie Theater Games

An anthropological view on game design

Game Anthropology
There is a concept in product design called product anthropology that can be usefully applied to game design.

"Plain anthropology is about watching how remote tribes go about their everyday lives and joining in with them eating nasty things. Product
anthropology is about watching how ordinary Westerners go about their lives;
what sort of things do they do, what do they want to do, how do they use the
things they have?" - Lon Barfield
I asked the same questions and applied that information to the design of a simple game that crowds can play while they wait for a movie to begin.


The basics of game anthropology are straight forward. First we examine the day to day life of a potentially underserved market. Perhaps it is women who do not game. Perhaps it is 60 year old baby boomers living in suburban situations. Then ask some game related questions...
  • When might games played?
  • How long can the games be played?
  • What is the social environment?
  • What are the cultural elements that influence the game?
  • What are the psychological needs?
Example game designs built using game anthropology
There are numerous examples that fit this mold:

  • Nintendo Gameboy: The stunning popularity of the GameBoy platform stems from the anthropological insight that Japanese boys spend quite a bit of time waiting for parents and riding on trains with nothing to do. They are bored and would react positively to a quick gaming fix. The product design solution resulted in games that offer rapid loading times and came bundled in a small easy-to-carry form factor. Recognition of this niche explains much of the longevity of the Gameboy platform.
  • Sony PSP / Gameboy Micro: There exists the same basic cultural environment for adults. They too find themselves on buses or waiting around. However, they also demand style. A gadget demonstrates an adult's social status. In mainstream American culture, childish gadgets are less popular with adults. The Gameboy with a product design focus on meeting the needs of children fails at this. Enter Sony with their style-heavy PSP. (I worry that they still don't understand the benefits of quick games and this may hurt their product long term.) Nintendo is countering with the Micro, a stylish Gameboy Advance product extension. They seek to fill a niche in their product line by offering a status symbol oriented version of their Gameboy that also appeals to adults on the go. From a game anthropology viewpoint, the Gameboy Micro and the PSP are direct competitors where a DS and GBA are not. It will be interesting to see the results in the market.
  • Financial Gameboy: I postulated a 'financial gameboy' that let you control your money supply using a PDA-like handheld. The cultural insight is that many people have difficult managing their money due to the poor feedback cycle created by our current system of purchasing and bank account reporting.
  • Serious Games: All serious games are examples of game anthropology in action. We may call the process of identifying needs a 'business case', but in reality this is just game anthropology applied to a business environment. Typical questions that might be asked are "In your daily training, what is the environment you are in?" Game designers come up with interesting solutions like a tablet PC that let repair men wirelessly get a repair code from a damaged aircraft and then play a game that teaches how to fix the particular defect before the plane lands.

The Movie Game
Let's put this into practice. This naturally occured to me was when I was at the movie theatre waiting for Star Wars to begin. We had a good 45 minute wait and the only thing to do was listen to painful pop music. Blech. Wouldn't it be nice to be entertained in some fashion?

So I invented a game that fits the cultural environment. Some details I latched onto:

  • We have big crowds of bored people.
  • Everyone has a cell phone and reception is quite good considering how much people are chatting up a storm.
  • Very few people are game players so complex control schemes are undesirable.
  • In many crowd situations, people play a variety of games such as chanting, the Wave and shout offs.
  • Theaters are culturally seens as 'quiet places' so these crowd games are not typically played here.

The interface
Imagine a computer hooked to the movie screen. It displays a phone number that anyone in the theatre can call. When they call the number, they are automatically logged into a massively multiplayer rhythm game and their avatar is displayed on the screen.

For control they have access to one button. Press a button on the cell phone and the character on the screen yells out a phrase. The character also flashes. Press short, long, short and the character flashes in this pattern. Even in a crowded screen, it is very easy to find your player by 'messaging' to yourself.

The games
The first game people play is shout off. A shout off is very simple. The screen is divided into two sides. One side says 'Pepsi' or some other phrase and the other side says 'Coke' when the button is pressed. The left side flashes Pepsi with a graphic for pushing the button. The more people who push the button in rhythm with the flashing, the louder the chant. There is full polyphonic sound so people can use their natural timing to synchronize the chanting. After period of time, the side gets a score.

Now it is the other side's turn. They try to shout louder than the previous team. Back and forth it goes for X rounds and then all the scores are tallied. The team with the most points wins and random people get an SMS giving them a free Coke. Of course the theater benefits because people never buy just a soda when they go to the concession stand.

The Results
We just trained a large group of people on how to play the game. We gave them a tangible reward. We increased theater revenue. And we made the theater going experiance both more enjoyable and unique. You'll never be able to do a digital 'shout off' in your living room.

The cultural trick we are playing here is that no one is actually shouting. Real shouting would break the cultural constraints of being quiet in a theater. That would be embarassing. What you are doing is performing a waiting activity endorsed by the establishment. This is an entirely different social proposition and lets you entertain yourself in an otherwise sterile, boring environment.

You can easily extend the system with games like the Wave, group chants and rhythm games. You can also add a huge variety of advertising and promotional elements that offer high impact advertising opportunities to the theaters compared to typical movie ads.

Conclusion
I hope this is a useful overview of the concept and practice of game anthropology. Correctly used this technique can help designers create potently original game designs that are more than just 'fun'. They are game-like activities that flourish within a cultural niche. If you have any ideas along these lines, feel free to add them to the comments.

take care
Danc.

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Saturday, April 30, 2005

The Financial Gameboy

One of the most difficult and damning areas of the American lifestyle is personal finance. As a nation we are deeply in debt and despite our cultural wealth fixation, basic accounting skills are rarely part of a standard education.

Here is a thought experiment that attempts to define a massively multi-player game of financial responsibility. How can we improve the personal finances and savings of heavily in debt individual using the tools and techniques of game design?

A Financial Gedanken Experiment
The key concept is that by using psychological risk and reward systems, we can promote financially sound behavior in an addictive, psychologically positive fashion. The 'player' has fun, they save money, and we make money by providing an exciting (and beneficial) game service.

First, let's begin with a rough overview of the tokens in play. The player is clearly the person spending the money. Money is a primary resource that is generated through a monthly pay check and is spent on several categories:

  • Essential: The basics you need to live.
  • Luxury goods: Anything above the basics necessary to live.
  • Savings / Debt reduction.
This is a great starting place. We have activities (purchasing) that we can categorize and either reward or punish. In the typical gaming world, we would immediately begin building interlocking risk / reward systems to start training the player. Unfortunately, we run into an immediate challenge. Games are typically played on a standardized platform with a well defined user interface and strong feedback mechanisms for the player. The real world is not set up in such a convenient fashion.

Dealing with the real world
As soon as you start dealing with real people and their daily interactions with the world, we are immediately in the land of product anthropology studies. We need to build a game interface on top of the player's reality and in order to do that we need to understand the basic constraints of their environment. Below are some obvious challenges that do not lend themselves to powerful game designs.

  1. Overly long reward cycles: Typically you only get checks in lump sums every two weeks. If gaining money is a reward, this occurs at far too long of a pace. On top of this, it is a fixed reward schedule, the exact sort that causes the player to burn out rather quickly. It is a thrill getting the first paycheck, but after a very short while it becomes the status quo.
  2. Lack of positive rewards: The player's primary actions occur in the presence of advertising and sales people who reward the player if they spend on luxury goods. There is little or not reward reinforcement for putting money towards saving.
  3. Untimely feedback: Means of monitoring and providing feedback are highly divorced from the action time scale. You can purchase a very expensive item within a few minutes. Yet feedback on how that affects yours longer term savings goals doesn't occur until typically several weeks later.
  4. Micromanagement: Existing systems are poorly defined. In order fit daily activities into the type of formal system required by most game mechanics, an individual is required to spend copious amounts of time with data entry. If I spend money on garden supplies at a grocery store, what does that mean? In the standard accounting viewpoint, this must be entered into a master ledger, tagged as gardening supplies and then manually compared to one of dozen account categories. Typically this happens in an application on a computer and is more effort than it is worth.
The result of all this is that most people begin an attempt to improve their budgeting and give up shortly afterwards because they don't see immediate results for the work that they put in.

Creating a financial game platform
Solving the interface problem is a priority. The player needs to get immediate feedback every time they make a purchase. Think of a purchase as the most atomic level that any meaningful action can occur at. This is our core risk activity. It is the equivalent of a turn in a game like chess or jumping in Mario. Remember, every core game mechanic is composed of a risk activity and a reward activity. We need a way of tracking purchases and giving feedback on them.

I'm going to imagine a 'Financial Gameboy'. This is a PDA-like device that replaces all credit cards and filters the use of the credit card through software that is hooked up to the internet (This last point may or may not be necessary.) A cell phone with electronic wallet technology isn't too far off from my Financial Gameboy, but with a little engineering, this concept should be possible right now.

The Financial Gameboy is a small gadget that slips and your pocket and replaces your standard credit card.

  • It acts just like a credit card. You can swipe it in any standard credit card reader. You can make a purchase over the internet. Any purchase that you make is immediately reported back to the device over it's internet connection.
  • It has a display that can show basic text information.
  • It has a very simplified interface with 3 or 4 buttons.
Here's how the basic interface works.

  • Before you swipe the card, the Gameboy must be turned on. By simply opening the device, it goes on.
  • Basic financial information, including your current goals and progress towards those goals, are displayed in a blatant manner. Just by glancing at the device you can tell your status as either within budget or over budget.
  • When you swipe the card, you are unable to complete the transaction until you identify the basic category the purchase falls into. Once you make a purchase from the same vendor, the device remembers if you've categorized it previously and saves you a button push. There are only 3 or 4 categories, each corresponding to a big button, so 'accounting' is trivial.
  • The card shows you your new status information and any rewards you might have accumulated.
Additional gaming rules
The interface with real life is always messy. In addition to electronic rules, there are specific social constraints that are necessary to ensure that the risk / reward system can do their work within a constrained formal environment.

  • You aren't allowed to use cash beyond a predetermined weekly allowance. Lower cash use is better because it lets you sidestep the risk / reward systems of the game.
  • You aren't allowed to use any other credit cards.
  • Your paycheck is automatically deposited in your account.
  • Major bills are put on automated payment.
How the game works
All this foundational structure is wonderful and I suspect would result in major improvements to anyone's spending habits. Simply having a shorter feedback cycle and an understanding of where you are financially is more than most people have when they are making purchases.

The real benefit comes from the addition of game mechanics that actively change the player's behavior in a positive fashion.

First, we do away with the bi-weekly 'influx of cash' that seems to define everyone's bank account. Instead, the player earns the ability to make additional purchases based off their skillful daily purchasing behavior. Even though your bank account has money in it, you don't get to touch it unless the game lets you.

Mind you, the game doesn't use a simple quota system like most budgets do either. The player would only get feedback when they hit a hard budget limit and that just isn't timely enough to provide solid operant conditioning.

The player's money is dribbled out to him in the form of immediate rewards.
  • Risk Activity (a.k.a. the Purchase Challenge): Every time the player makes a purchase, it is ranked as either a good or bad purchase.
  • Good or Bad is determined by a purchasing profile: For example, food purchases are typically $10 for meals and $100 when you buy groceries. Anything over these amounts is bad. Anything under is good.
  • When you make a good purchase, you earn points (think of it as experience points in an RPG) towards luxury items.
  • Luxury items are defined the player in a big web-based wish list that they can prioritize. There are also generic items like candy bars and such they can also prioritize.
  • The amount of points you get for each purchase is governed by a complex system of combos, random bonus, and other overlapping reward systems. Buy three good food items in a row for less than you expected and get a free minor reward. Wow.
You'll win some purchases challenges and you'll lose some. The game will start out on a relatively easy setting with simple rewards giving you substantial rewards. As you 'level up', you'll start aiming for the bigger prizes and that means aiming for more good purchases, and less bad purchases. Over time, you'll start playing meta-games to optimize your path towards those larger rewards. "Aha", you'll say. "I can avoid a whole bunch of purchases by eating in." The game, sensing a lack of purchasing activity will give you additional bonuses.

Underneath all of this is running an accounting engine that is funneling X% of your income towards savings, Y% towards fundamentals, and reserving some Z% for luxury rewards. Transaction after transaction, day after day, month after month, money will be funneling towards your longer term goals. As you get better at playing the game, you'll see your goals arrive faster than you expected.

With internet connectivity, you can start layering social reward systems on top of the basic mechanics. Algorithms can generate high score lists and compare you to other people in your area. As you improve, you start climbing the list. As you make additional levels, you get social awards. You can SMS other players words of encouragement and if they feel like the comments helped, they can mod you up, giving you more points to spend on your personal financial goals.

This massively multiplayer social lubrication leads the player to websites and blogs where tips are shared for getting ahead. The trick is not to create a self help group. This is no pity party. The goal is to create a cheat site for the avid gamer so they can 'beat the system'. This highly creative lateral thinking helps them save more money and reach their goals more quickly. We are tying into the powerful psychology of solving a fun problem. We are avoiding the dead end psychology that comes from couching financial management as a painful task that must be accomplished with no short term benefit.

What this accomplishes from a game design perspective
We've done the following:
  • Shorten the risk / reward cycle dramatically from once every 2 - 4 weeks to every purchase.
  • Build multiple overlapping risk reward mechanisms that reinforce behavior and prevent burnout.
  • Create meaningful rewards and set up clear activities for reaching those goals.

Target Market and Cost
The target market is people in debt. The service costs $5 - $10 bucks a month, but promises to save the player thousands of dollars. The numbers don't lie and we gather lots of numbers. In fact, with all the successful numbers in our hands, some of our biggest customers can be financial groups trying to mitigate the cost of people who have difficulties managing their debt. They would much rather have a low-risk system that gets proven results than have to go through the morass of bankruptcy and collection.

The opportunities to sell financial and investing services are also huge. Not only do you have access to the player's money, but you can also directly influence how they are spending that money by weighing certain options as more beneficial than others. The biggest reason for bankruptcies are unexpected hospital bills hitting families who are too highly leveraged on debt. Wouldn't it be nice to build the game in a such a fashion that it makes health insurance a slightly higher point value investment than items like a new car?

The morality of the issue is neither black nor white. The application of addictive gaming systems to everyday life is relatively new ground. What do we do when we can make the 'real world' just another part of an abstract, highly addictive game?

Closing thoughts
I would certainly use my Financial Gameboy constantly. At a very basic psychological level the act of financial accounting is painful. To make this modern micromanagement affliction into an activity that is both fun and productive is a nearly god-like accomplishment. The ramifications within our capitalist society are nearly boundless.

Perhaps this is the true future of game design. The most successful games may not be art. Instead they will be useful.

take care
Danc.

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