Directory of All Essays

Thursday, January 31, 2008

My wife collected 121 stars

Super Mario Galaxy found at least one avid fan in our household. :-) I just had to share.

take care

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Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Super Mario Galaxy: A breakup note

Last week we picked up Super Mario Galaxy. It has always been a private shame of mine that I never truly experienced Mario 64, despite all the accolades that it has garnered. Years ago, I played for the first level, enjoyed running about and marveling at the scenery. But then, as I recall, the game became impossibly difficult. Not for all people. Just for me. Completing precision jumps across lava filled 3D chasms while ominous monstrosities slobber at my heels is my own private form of hell.

The hot hookup
But Super Mario Galaxy has received universally great reviews; it maintains an ample 97.3% on It is also supposedly relatively easy to beat and the controls are dead simple, a stance in line with Nintendo's lovely new casual bent. So, what the heck. Targét, the local French emporium of stylish goods, had it on sale for 35 smackers. I figured I'd give it a shot.

So I plopped it in the Wii and sat through the drearily long intro movie. First impressions...the camera still sucks, but it is cool that you can tag the little star bits with the wiimote. Ooh, a spherical world. Wow, this camera really does suck! I'm suddenly navigating upside down and my head is cocked at a 90 degree angle. I barely know where my little dude is heading.

So I gamely struggle with the wonky interface up until the first black hole. I immediately drive my drunken Mario tank directly off the ledge into the hole's waiting maw. Boom, back at the beginning of the level I go. And I lose a life. Confusion sets in. Shouldn't there be like a quicksave or something that lets me try this dastardly trap again? Surely, a mistake made in a fraction of a second surely shouldn't be punished by a minute long replay penalty.

The frustration of not finding your soul mate
Oh, but it is. At this point I'm pissed. For me, the first hour of Super Mario Galaxy simply isn't any fun. It is stressful, irritating and it punishes me when I make the slightest mistake. And then it gets worse. I jumped from enjoying WiiSports to playing Super Mario Galaxy. The difference in expected play styles is quite the shock.
  • Time between failure and retry is too long: If you make a mistake, retrying again should only be less than 15 seconds away. Even a minute is too long. The easy levels of Knytt are just about right...3 to 10 seconds between retries. Something like Braid promises to be even better. Replay just as much as you need to.
  • Lack of dynamic difficulty: My wife died five times in a row trying to run around behind a giant tromping plant. How hard is it to reduce the difficulty level of an enemy if they end up blocking a player's progress? Make the monster tromp slower. Require fewer hits to kill. We build games in a one size fits all manner when the obvious reality is that there are lots of different types of players. Try to meet up half away instead of asking the player to do all the work.
  • Blocking linear challenges: Naturally, my wife quit the game after this repeated punishment. Classic burnout. Never block the player with a challenge that presents no option but continued failure. When the player is presented with challenge after challenge in a linear manner, eventually they get to one that they can't pass. Beating your head against such an obstacle is frustrating. Instead, let the player try something else. (Eventually you gain access to multiple galaxies at once, but not soon enough. Also most individual levels remain quite linear)
  • Too much of a focus on learning through failure and repetition: A good 80% of the levels teach the player new skills by killing them if they screw up. A player new to the 3D platformer genre is expected to rack up hundreds of deaths before they reach the end. Many areas require a half dozen or more attempts, each lasting minutes, before success is achieved. And this is fun?
If you fixed these things, it wouldn't be a Mario game
None of these problems are the fault of Super Mario Galaxy.
I'm playing the game incorrectly. My suggestions are like trying to improve a lover that isn't quite the right match. Mario is a game about all those things I want to fix. You see, when I play, my most happy moments are exploring and chatting with the little cute mushroom guys. All this jumping crap just gets in my way. But the point of Mario is the jumping crap.

Super Mario Galaxy is all about mastering physical skills. If you map out the skill atoms, everything relies on movement and timing. This is reptile brain stuff that is learned in one very simple manner: repetition. Remember, Karate Kid? Wax on, wax off. The game design is a slave to this biological requirement. If you want to encourage the player to master navigate a narrow path above a black hole, you need to force them to perform variations on that action a thousand times. Each failure improves our muscle memory a fraction more.

This is core of Mario:
  • Move accurately.
  • If you fail, you die and try again.
  • If you succeed, a new challenge appears where you must move with even greater accuracy.
There are of course some lovely exploration elements and cute graphics mixed in with the basic activiities. However, if you removed the core elements of timing and jumping, you wouldn't have a Mario platformer any longer.

It's not you, it's me
Sometimes, it is the player, not the design that is at fault. Somewhere along the way, I have diverged from the traditional gamer path. Those simple pleasures of twitching in sequence to bizarre spacial/temporal puzzles are lost on me. Instead of finding them fun, I find them to be obnoxious time wasters.

This goes back to the work of Chris Bateman, Nicole Lazzaro, Nicholas Lee and others exploring different play styles. Not all people enjoy the same sort of games. It's an obvious statement that is still making itself heard throughout the gaming ecosystem.

For example, on Nick Lee's motivation assessment test, I happen to score high on exploration and socializing tendencies, but don't really give a damn about in-game achievement.
  • I'll put up with fighting enemies or solving puzzles into order to see new vistas or get some coin to help outfitting my character. I'm not in it for the joy of the battle.
  • For a person like myself, Street Fighter is the single dumbest game of all time.
  • On the other hand, wandering about in Animal Crossing and planting sweet rows of pretty apple trees is pure crack.
With the advent of casual and indie games as well as the efforts on the DS and the Wii to broaden the market, I'm starting to see more games that I enjoy quite thoroughly. Games are beginning to finally emerge from their geeky, masochist roots and it delights me to no end.

I should have never listened to his advice
The rest of the ecoystem hasn't quite caught up. That 98% score for Super Mario Galaxy on is so horrendously polluted by a self-selection bias that it is laughable. What percentage of the reviewers fit any of the following criteria?
  • Never played a 3D platformer.
  • Mostly enjoy casual games like Bejeweled.
  • Prefer social board games like Pictionary or Scrabble.
That's a random smattering of non-hardcore play styles and skill levels present in the broader population. I suspect you'll find less than 5% of professional game reviewers fit any of those profiles. The quality signals sent by the extraordinarily biased press are completely inappropriate for anyone who hasn't been playing games as their primary hobby for the past five years.

What will it take for the game industry to adapt to the fact that different gamers like different games? I'm not sure that expert game reviewers, describing their personal tale about their unique experience with the game, have a place in telling most people which games they should play. It's like taking dating advice from a Guild Navigator, so loaded to the gills with the spice of genre addiction that they've mutated into an alien being.

For me, the solution is all about trying the game out before I purchase. This is an area where immense improvement is possible.
  • Customers need to learn to seek out demos. They also need to refuse to buy sight unseen the products that fail to offer a free trial. This is a culture change that will likely take years to complete. It is inevitable. People don't like making $40 mistakes.
  • Developers need to learn the fine art of making great demos. A great demo is a viral marketing engine that cuts out the middleman. They improve customer satisfaction and can improve the margin that a developer takes home. There is a huge opportunity here to merge the lessons of free-to-play service models with the mechanics found in current downloadable games. Unfortunately, building a demo that provides instant value, an incentive to purchase and makes users want to pass it on to others is a skill that is rarely found at most game development shops. We are seeing some early attempts on Xbox Live, the PS3 and the DS download stations, though at the moment, the demo is often a separate from the full version. As the concepts of 'free to play' and 'demo' begin to merge, developers will need to address this disconnect.
  • Platforms need to make demos the default method of promoting a game. If a game is released in the store, I should be able to download a demo online. If your platform doesn't encourage this for most games, your customers are being punished. Ideally, customers can purchase the game from within the trial. This is already the case for the casual download market and I expect it to spread quickly into other areas of the game market.
If Super Mario Galaxy had a demo, I would have tried it out and likely given it a pass.

If only I liked you...
In a way, all this makes me sad. There is an entire herd of twitchy game developers, trained for decades to worship fare like Mario Galaxy. They are out there, busting their beautiful balls to make more games that push the same exact psychological buttons as the pedestal lounging AAA titles of their childhood. They are building some great games, but those games aren't for me.

It's like meeting a girl who is cute and smart, but really, really likes the whole dressing up their boyfriend in black duct tape and then whipping them until they bleed from unmentionable orifices. You'll eventually back away, but there is always that slightest tinge of regret.

You'll find someone
This tale has a happy ending. My wife picked up the controller after I set it down in frustration. The last platformer that she played was Super Mario Bros on the original Famicom, but she figured, what the heck. She came back from being crushed by the first boss, read the walk through sites for tips and finally defeated him. From that point onward, she's been clocking in six to eight hours a day and just picked up her 60th star. She dies over and over again. The addiction and delight on her face when she ends a level is palpable. For her, the game clicks.

Perhaps after she's done, I'll pop into the levels she's already conquered and cherry pick the handful of experiences that fit my style of play. There is a beach level with a cannon and a lagoon. There isn't much there, but it is rather relaxing to hang out with the one scaredy crab (I kill off the hurtful ones) and taking the occasional lazy swim through the pristine waters.

Even universal acclaim is not enough to justify a purchase. Each player has their own distinct playing style and many of these preferences are rarely captured by the hardcore journalists who review most games. Instead of complaining about the game post-purchase, it is far better to grab a demo and experience it directly. This goes for even such gems as Super Mario Galaxy.

Happy New Year,

Updated 10:01AM, January 2nd: Clarified some of the minor bits and added a conclusion so that the main point isn't completely lost in the red haze that comes from hearing a heathen's encounter with the Holy One. :-)


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Sunday, February 18, 2007

Discovering Comet-san

Last night, my wife and I watched Cosmic Baton Girl Comet-san, an anime series aimed at roughly five to ten year olds. I have been avoiding such experiences for quite some time.

I’ve watched a handful of Miyazaki films in my lifetime, but somehow I side stepped the raving fanaticism that tends to burn in the souls of your stereotypical Japanoholic. There are numerous splinter factions within the geek culture and I’ve always considered myself somewhat of an accidental mainstream nerd. There is no doubt that I bear the nerd mark burned upon my forehead. My membership in our little minority was sealed early on once the Community discovered my love of citing scientific studies and my penchant for lugging about Greg Bear novels. At least in America, this is the rough equivalent of not speaking English as your first language or having chocolate skin. Chop, chop…into the box you go. At age seven, you don’t really know enough to make a fuss.

However, the niche Star Trek, Anime, LARPing, Linux subcultures never held much personal appeal. These were the obscure hobbies of my friends, akin to knowing someone who really enjoys raising champion poodles. I’d nod and smile politely before moving on to topics of mutual interest, like differential geometry. Occasionally, I’d borrow a manga that my friends recommended with giant, pleading saucer-like eyes, but any sort of repeatable addiction never really caught fire.

Later in life, I married a wonderful woman. She was smart, stylish, loved long meandering walks in the park and had the sort of dry, razor sharp wit that I imagined only mythical New York café lasses possessed. It was only a couple years later that it fully sunk in that she was in fact Japanese. Talk about being put in a pickle. Once you get the nerd brand, being married to a woman who happens to speak Japanese is instant entry into an entirely new universe of stereotypes. The default assumptions abound. Did you know that I now adore anime? And of course all my previous girlfriends were Asian since I naturally have a certain (wink, wink, nudge, nudge) predilection for very short schoolgirl outfits. Oh, and I speak fluent Japanese due to my extensive stay teaching English in Japan. None of these happen to be true, but how can you not find them mildly amusing?

As a bit of a contrarian, I’ve resisted some aspects of this packaging. Until very recently, it had been years since I had rented anime or read manga. The former are the equivalent of seeing La Vita è Bella (Life is Beautiful) dubbed by the cast of Scoobie Doo high on crack and helium. With the later, I can imagine better uses of my money than spending a tenner on an initial hour of entertainment that promises $400 worth of episodic cliff hangers in the future.

Enter Comet-san
Comet-san is the tale of a magical young girl of about 12 who enjoys twirling batons. The entire show sparkles with wonder. There aren’t merely raindrops falling from the edge of the roof during a rainstorm. Instead, they are little drip people whose job it is to drip with all their might. The animation of the drop creatures pushing themselves away from the ledge with determination and glee inspires me. There are none of the odd sexual overtones, just delightful child-like innocence.

There is a highly appealing animist spirituality woven throughout the series. Ancient trees snore. Miniature worlds fly about the heavens like playful children. This is a feeling that I’ve been attempting to capture in my artwork for many years. We’ve downloaded 21 subtitled episodes over BitTorrent and are merrily munching through them. Each one leaves us both with huge smiles on our faces. I realize that this series is only one of many such series in Japan and that it likely isn’t even a very good one. Yet, I feel like a foreign exchange student in the 90s who has been introduced to Michael Jackson for the first time. For the elite, it may be passé, but for me it is the seed of a brilliantly fresh insight.

We need more child-like delight and wonder in the worlds we create. Enough with the grim, sexually explicit brownness of next generation games and high budget American fear frenzy films. The presence of color and vividly imagined life stirs something creative inside of me that has been dormant for an unfortunately long time. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to just create a game world about a city park grove that thrives with huge moss covered tree gods and scampering, mundane spirits? The everyday world is an appealingly surreal and magical playscape when seen through the proper filter.

Upon watching Comet-san, I’m reminded of a song by King Missile titled appropriately “The Boy Who Ate Lasagna And Could Jump Over A Church”
Once there once was a boy
Who was very happy most of the time.
His life was almost completely complete.
He could sense however,
That there were two things
That were missing from his life,
But he didn't know what they were.

One day, his family took him to an Italian restaurant.
The boy had never had Italian food,
And was mesmerized
By all the exotic sounding names of the dishes.
He asked about the lasagna,
And it sounded delicious,
So he ordered it.
He ate the lasagna, and it was delicious.

The boy knew that one of the things
That was missing in his life
Was no longer missing.
Take care

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Sunday, January 14, 2007

The game design behind the five things blog meme

First, let's start off the exercise with an example. Here are three things about me (because I write too much for five to be worth wading through), as requested by at least two enchanting human beings, Mr. Edery and Mr. Booth. Note the links to their websites and consider the form and intent of the entries below.

1) Doctor Who
Television was uncommon in my household growing up for a variety of reasons. First, it clearly rotted your soul. Second, due to our unique location in the hinterlands of Maine, we received a mere three stations, two of which were pure Canadian syrup and one of which was PBS. Luckily, generations of liberal elite had conclusively proven that any show on PBS builds enormous pulsating (and vaguely British) brain mass. Look at Ira Glass. I’ll bet he watches PBS. My parents were fans.

Every Saturday night, my amazing mother would bake a whole wheat crust pizza and we would climb up the rickety ladder to the perennially unfinished television room at the top of our sprawling hand-built home. There, around an ancient television (the sort whose tube seemed nearly spherical), the entire family would gather and watch the latest glorious episode of Doctor Who. Cybermen, Saurians, the Master, and Chameleons circuit all rock my world.

This was a tradition that continued for at least a decade, through puberty, graduations and death. Every Saturday, whole-wheat pizza and the church of Doctor Who. The core of my being still sparkles when I see long scarves and alien rubber masks. I vividly recall the second episode: time travel, petrified forests, static electricity powered Daleks. The Bible never had a chance.

2) Chocolate
Once a month, we sneak off to a strip mall Starbucks where we greet the waiting cadre of chocoholics. With a flourish, we reveal our latest decadent discoveries. The evening becomes a whirl of luscious single origin dark chocolate, roasted nibs and bon bons. Roll the sound of that word around your mouth. “Bon Bon.” We’ve dabbled in local salt caramels and liquor filled delights purchased with adult credentials, but hell, anything less with than 65% cacao is barely worth the time.

There is a ritual to the evening. First, each owner snaps off small pieces of their sacrificial bar. The sound, hardness and texture noted. The aroma is inhaled. Next, each dark nub is placed upon napkins with its own special number. Then each person simultaneously lets a small fragment melt upon their tongue. “Oh, what a delightful front taste!” someone will exclaim. “I think I taste a fruitiness, perhaps a kiwi-peachish mélange?” queries another. We take careful notes. “No. 1: kiwi-peachish mélange? Right.

We completely make it all up. I don’t even know what kiwi-peach or burnt almonds taste like. There is an unspoken rule that no one criticizes anyone’s commentary, no matter how ludicrous. Chocolate tasting, it turns out, is not the exercise in snobbery I expected. There is no status to be gained or sommelier to impress. It's all a thinly veiled excuse to gorge upon one of God’s most marvelous sins.

(Give the Michel Cluizel Concepcion try. Pure chocolate nectar.)

3) Phones
I’m a reasonable social fellow and enjoy chatting on the phone or receiving phone calls from others. But making phone calls? Not so much. Throughout college I managed to never order pizza. This required intense subterfuge and occasionally Byzantine plotting. Starvation was certainly an option, but eventually someone else would be hungry enough that they could be bribed, manipulated or coerced into making the dread call.

My deeply rooted quirk manifests not as a phobia, but more of a nearly unstoppable subconscious urge to defer, to procrastinate. My productivity shoots through the roof when someone recommends I make a call. I clean, write old friends, start Very Important Essays, paint, etc. I can easily put off calls for months or even years.

This drives my wife crazy. She is the Phone Master. Just today she tracked down a foreign exchange student that my parents knew a decade ago. Phone call, after phone call until she had the girl's name, number and location 17 times zones away. For this I, the broken caller, worship the very ground she floats above in that angel-like Phone Master sort of way.

I won’t nominate other people because the chain must die at some point.

Take care

PS: A short analysis of the “5 things about myself” from a game design perspective
Now that the example is out of the way, let’s get a wee bit meta. What we here is an elegant social game. You play it by writing something about yourself and then nominate several more people to write about themselves. Some call it a meme, but it can be easily described in game design terms. To wit:
  • Tokens: the Writer, the Readers and the Target(s).
  • Basic Verbs: Write, Nominate and Read.
I leave the drawing out of the various atomic rewards as an exercise for the reader. :-) Here are some highlights.
  • Writer reward: The writer is rewarded because they get users to drop on by and see their post. Incremental feedback that suggests one’s reputation is increasing within a community is a strong motivator for many bloggers.
  • Reader reward: Readers are rewarded because they pick up new facts about the writer. This allows them to update their social model of the writer and typically increases their overall trust in the writer. This information allows them to rank the information on the site more appropriately for use in future decisions.
  • Writer action: The writer also gets to target others. This provides them with a very direct and low cost way of updating their mental model on information sources that they use on a regular basis. If they chose someone who continues the game, they also tend to get a back-link that leads more traffic to their website, pumping up their reputation score.
  • Target reward: The targets get immediate rewards through A) being given social attention and B) more concretely through the flow of traffic to their website. However, it gets a bit stickier than just that.
  • Target punishment: There is an opportunity for punishment as well. If the target chooses not to play, the writer will feel that their invitation was spurned and the relationship damaged. Since relationships are powerful social tools, having one damaged is a strong form of punishment that most people will seek to mitigate. In simpler terms, targets feel peer pressure to continue the game.
How you play the game matters. The execution of each action has subtle ramifications.

Uses of the write verb: When writing the five things, there is an urge to appeal to your target audience and build trust in your validity as an information source. If you are boring, readers experience burnout, you hurt your reputation and get double dinged for being the blind follower of a very silly fad. In my example above, each element targeted a very specific audience that I know reads this site.

Uses of the nominate verb: The choosing of Targets is the most interesting part of the game. The obvious strategy is to pick someone with whom you share a pre-existing social bond. Otherwise, the punishment feedback cycle has no hold over them. You also typically select someone with whom you would like to build a deeper long term relationship. The sharing of links is the modern equivalent of breaking bread together.

There are less traditional uses of the Target verb.
  • You can target blogs that are much more popular than you are. If you can score a link back, you can reap substantial traffic. The trick here is to provide a hook that overcomes the lack of peer pressure. Note that there is a little cost if you fail. For example, I could challenge Digg reader to provide 5 things that no one knows about them.
  • You can select blogs that you wish to validate on a personal level. Perhaps they intrigue you, but you’d like more details. I could challenge the good folks at the Escapist if they hadn’t been tagged already.
  • You can end the game.

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Thursday, September 28, 2006

Mr. and Mrs.

This past Saturday in the coastal village of Rockland, Maine, I was married to my sweetheart. Naturally, it rained. We packed all forty odd guests into the creaky (yet lovely) bed and breakfast where we were staying and held the ceremony on the stairs coming down into the entryway. Aya was breathtaking. The vision of her walking towards me makes my heart skip a beat. There was dancing, fine local microbrews, cake, toasts and the sort of joyful intelligent conversation that is the root of all that is great and wonderful.

I am not a superstitious man, but I enjoy the random confluence of happenstance and clever planning that gives the miraculous appearance of good omens. September 23rd was a very special day.
  • Rain, you see, is almost always good luck. Why, I do not know, but I’m very willing to take my aunt’s word on the matter.
  • The day also happened to be the autumn equinox. We had small ritual-sized pumpkins, but I’m not sure anyone got around to performing any proper pagan harvest rites. Note to self: Next time invite more witches.
  • Both my mother and my amazing bride share a birthday, September 23rd to be exact. Yes, I am quite absentminded and yes, the women in my life are kind beyond all reasonable expectations.
  • My mother turned 60. This is the 5th cycle of the Chinese calendar and represents a time of rebirth. She found this to be the best news she had heard in a quite a few birthdays. “No, today you are younger, not older.”
Another connection occurred on that rainy day in Maine. Aya’s parents and good friend Michiko traveled all the way from the distant isle of Honshu to be at the ceremony. A marriage is as much about the joining of two families as it is about finally kicking the bride and groom out of their parent’s house. We were honored to have both sides of our family together in one place.
Two vignettes stand out:
  • At the rehearsal dinner, Aya’s father gave me a bullet shaped USB drive from Akihabara. It was the modern version of a shotgun wedding in this age of birth control and blushing thirty-year-old brides. I smiled and laughed…and took his message very, very seriously.
  • The first night Michiko arrived, we stopped by the nearby greasy spoon to eat a bit of lobster. The weathered waitress couldn’t quite believe Aya and Michiko’s request for soy sauce and lemon instead of melted butter. Delicious. I suspect a local Maine legend was born that night.
After the wedding, the days flew by. There were few thoughts of work, games or honestly much of anything. For our mini-honeymoon we drank mead, moseyed through nearby museums, and supped at fine restaurants. I’m still in mild shock.

My god, she is a beautiful woman. How could I be so lucky?

Many thanks to everyone who helped make our wedding so marvelous.

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Thursday, April 13, 2006

The joyful life of the lapsed game developer

Once upon a time I was a passionate game developer. Though I still love games and game design, I no longer work in the game industry. I have forsaken the church of game development for the easy and highly rewarding life of mainstream software development.

This is my happy story.

What brought me down this path?
It began with a common enough tale in the game industry. The project I had worked on for the previous two years was canceled. After all those 80 hour weeks, fueled by a feverish passion to build something marvelous, I was cut loose. I never went back.

There are lots of people like me. In fact there are more lapsed game developers in the world than there are current game developers. Let’s look at some back of the napkin numbers. The average career in the game industry is 5 years. With 800 mainstream games a year and an average team size of 40 developers, we have a rough population of 32,000. If 20% leave a year, that’s roughly 6,000 new lapsed game developers every year. Over the past decade, that rapidly adds up to 50,000 or more lapsed game developers.

This doesn’t include the smaller shops that generally have a higher turnover rate. Feel free to refine the numbers, but the basics still stand. The population of lapsed game developers dwarves that of current game developers. If you could put together a LGDC (Lapsed Game Developers Conference), it would be at least twice as large as that little show in San Jose. And when Chris Crawford gave his keynote we would cheer maniacally.

Because he is our god.

Oh, those little reasons
I joined a company that ended up making middleware for the game industry. I still was able to maintain many of my old contacts, but the work environment was quite different. I learned about new ways of doing things that were quite shocking and delightful. As the years have passed, I’ve always contemplated going back, if only to recapture that raw emotion of pushing my creativity to the edge. Yet I never have. Most of our happy 50,000 strong brethren never do.

There are lots of reasons of course, some of which are the fault of the industry at large. Many however are due to the fact that I’m having a blast doing what I’m doing.

The short list of things that kept me away
These are some of the issues that you’ve heard before. They bear repeating.

  • The stunning and widespread ignorance of project management: Fresh game developers are like conscripts in the Red Army, tossed untrained into the teeth of the advancing Germans. They get the job done, but the unnecessary psychological bloodshed is appalling. The 95% chance that I’d end up on a team run by bullheaded milestone sluts that worship the rush of the crunch is worrisome. Everyone has bad practices, but the general inability or unwillingness to learn and adapt is a deal breaker.
  • A general lack of exciting projects: The chance of working on a truly meaningful game project that changes the world is slim. I’m an oddball in that I enjoy making games with interesting new game mechanics. Churning out sequels with mildly upgraded graphics does not seem like a worthwhile way to spend my life. This isn’t insurmountable, but it does reduce the number of viable opportunities.
  • Pay: Taking a roughly 20% pay cut is hard to justify. Pay has nothing to do with money and everything to do with respect. It is hard to swallow my pride and admit to the world that I am worth less because I happen to work in the game industry.
  • Family: We’ve been talking about kids lately. 80-hour work weeks don’t leave much time to change the diapers or watch your favorite little woobie-boo take her first tottering steps. You can’t get those moments back. The thought of giving that up just so I could make a button on a car configuration screen glow a little more brightly makes my heart break.
The things that kept me doing what I’m doing
Here is a little secret. Staying away isn't all about the game industry's faults. It turns out that the world outside of game development is quite wonderful. It is full of fresh honey, flowers, and lithe and luscious servants feeding you goblets of purest nectar. It is a fundamentally better life.

Over the past twenty years, while game companies have been churning and burning their way through the disposable lives of their enthusiastic employees, other industries have been learning and improving. Software development is no longer a mysterious black box…there are better ways of doing things that improve the lifestyle of the workers while improving the bottom line of the company.

Sure, there are still quite a few miserable groups out there, but tides of knowledge have lifted all the boats.

  • Agile development: Once you have run a successful agile software development project, you can never go back. It is the difference between being happy and tired each day after honest labor, and feeling like you’ve spent the day slogging through a wasteland of mud up to your neck. The team is in control and they tend to make products with lower overall design risk and lower execution risk. Agile development works and it has opened my eyes to the possibility of software development without suffering.
  • Reasonable work hours: I have done more than my share of all-nighters, but it pragmatically is not worth it. Here is a little tidbit from the High Moon talk at GDC. By the 4th week of working overtime, your productivity drops below your 40 hour a week average. By working normal hours, I’m happier and I get more work done. People outside the game industry are not lazy when they go home at 5pm. They are smart.
  • Making the world a better place: The applications I build now help people in a very concrete way. I like that warm fuzzy feeling. I was talking to a fellow lapsed game developer who now works in 3d imaging in the medical field. He told me “The work I do now saves people’s lives. You can’t beat that.” There is a moral core that is missing from the game development community that exists in other industries, even in other entertainment sectors. In movies, you can still make documentaries that right past wrongs. In books, you can seek to help and enlighten. In games? I wonder.
Lapsed game developers won’t be coming back
Is the game industry better off without those 50,000 lapsed game developers? Surely, most were slackers that would have just slowed the rest down?

I was a reasonable game developer. I single handedly drew 95% of the graphics for Tyrian in a 4-month period of time, roughly 1/2 to 1/3 the time that art for comparable games had taken. You’ve read my essays on business practices and game design. Could I have contributed? What is more important is that there are likely hundreds, if not thousands of lapsed game developers out there who are far better than I will ever be. Surely, they could have helped the industry in some meaningful way.

It is too late now.

Instead, those talented folks have gone out into the bigger world and seen amazing new wonders beyond even the wildest imaginings of their kept game developer brothers. They stay away, not because they are weak or ignorant. Lapsed game developers stay away because they’ve seen the light of quality pay, reasonable work hour, jobs with meaning, and competent management.

In the process, they’ve incorporated new knowledge of business and successful development practices. Instead of simply doing more, they do the right things first. They have evolved into something wiser and more capable than those who stayed behind.

To all those who are lapsed
This essay is a joyful call to all those wonderful people who are leaving the game industry. Welcome to the bright side of life. You are blessed.

To all those who are tempted
If you happen to be between projects and are questioning your allegiance to the brotherhood of game development, here is a suggestion. Find an Agile development shop that is doing something you could believe in. Try it out for a year or two. If everything I’ve said is a lie, you can always go back. If it isn’t a lie, the experience will be well worth the time, for you, your bank account and your family

To all those who are lost
For all those mournful souls still strapped to the burning cross of waterfall milestone hell, I really wonder if it is possible to improve your lot. I suppose you could learn some modern project management skills. Or you could question why you do things the way that you do and see if there were any alternate methods that might be better. You could even learn from successes outside of the game industry.

In the end, it is probably far too much work. Better to continue what you are doing and to continue to fail. It is certainly far better to continue to damage your mental health and starve your family of both money and your love. The way things are right now is just easier for everyone.

I have faith however. Because, eventually, you too will join us.


It worked, didn’t it?

This is why you should join the LGD coalition:

These people are crazy.

Ah, Chris.

Sweet Jesus. Artwork!!.htm

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Thursday, November 10, 2005

Off topic: Lessons from Starbucks

The raw desolation of an empty Midwestern strip mall in the waning hours of the noon embodies the essence of the American suburbanite’s desperate existence. Outside the sun beats down on the endless empty parking lots, baking the soul out of both plants and people. Personality is eradicated. The neighborhood shops are generic big box chains. Another Walgreens. Another Pottery Barn. Another Kwiki Lube.

This is not a landscape meant for people. You can’t even walk from one store to the next. Instead, you get in your car, drive through a convoluted artery of dead pavement and cracked concrete and get out at your next capitalistic theme park destination. A sign blares at you “Yes, we have Mickey Mouse salt shakers! 50% off!”

You are not a human being to these stores. True fact: in suburbia, they model the cashiers’ stations after the queues used by the cattle industry. I’ve run the equations and calculated the break even point for adding another point of human contact. You are a source of income whose needs must be served to the minimum degree necessary for you to open your wallet.

Mile upon mile, the stores stretch in every direction. They speak a simple message, “You are here to be used. You’ll enjoy it because you know no better.” Wide eight lane streets with mini exits for Target and Walmart are packed with heavily armored SUV’s. In Middle America, it never was about community or being ecologically friendly. It has always been about surviving in a psychologically hostile wasteland.

Welcome to Big Business’s vision of the American Dream.

Recently, I was in the odd situation of having a spare hour to relax. As I drove around in circles for a good twenty minutes, it occurred to me that there is not a single location was built for satisfying this simple, basic human need. I could have headed off to the nearest King Soopers (a grocery store chain that demonstrates American’s rebellion against the most basic forums of intellectualism), but what good would that do me? Should I hang about in front of the mini-bank while I read a paper?

Finally I spotted a Starbucks and felt a wave of relief. Here was a place that I could catch a quick drink and doodle in my notebook for a short while.

As a snob and a humanist, Starbucks represents to me a derivative mockery of real culture. At some point in the past, there was a simple coffee shop with a community of patrons. The owner made the coffee. Rich aroma filled the air and comfortable jokes about the weather or the latest news were lazily exchanged. Little tables welcomed you to hang out for a moment and may even think a deep thought or two. Starbucks took that atmosphere, upped the caffeine, commercialized it, productized it, and turned it into a $1.5 billion a year business that is growing at 22% annually.

But it occurred to me as I sat at a table surrounded by the now iconic brown and green interior: “This is the best most people have.”

No wonder it is popular.

take care

PS: This one is for Ray and Zoombapup. Zoombapup wanted to see me rant. Ray, well...I just like talking with Ray about the midwest. :-)

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Thursday, October 20, 2005

Big News: The Newest Gig

As some of you may know, I have three major interests that I have passionately pursued over the years.
  • Games Development
  • Tool Design
  • Illustration
Over the past seven years, I’ve been honored to work with a stunningly talented crew of folks over at Anark. In that time, we’ve released six (!) versions of Anark Studio, a truly classy tool for authoring 3D application. It is my baby.

The latest Anark Gameface keeps gaining major new customers at an impressive rate. We just announced Silicon Knights, makers of Too Human are using it with their new Unreal-based Xbox 360 title and there should be some even bigger announcements coming out shortly. A little bit of me is going to be in dozens of games that hit the shelves next year. That is pretty darn cool.

Change, baby
But time comes for a man to move on in his life. Aya and I have been talking about moving out to the Northwest for some time and I’ve been doing more marketing than product design lately.

Shortly after returning from our trip to Japan, I got an unexpected phone call from a gentleman up in Redmond, Washington. One thing led to another and I now have a shiny new job at Microsoft helping design the recently announced Acrylic graphic design tool.

Designing Art Tools
A little history is perhaps in order. I’ve been designing drawing tools since I was 17 when I first got my hands on Deluxe Paint and was convinced that there was a better way. I’ve been drawing professionally ever since I landed my first game job in college. My notebooks are filled with scribbles on how to improve Painter, Illustrator and Photoshop.

But the chance to do serious product design on a new illustration tool happens about once every dozen years or so in this industry. To have such an opportunity fall into my lap is exciting to say the least.

With Anark, I had a chance to combine both Game Development and Tool Design and it was a great experience. Now I get to combine my passions for Tool Design with Illustration. At the moment Microsoft is not known for their beautiful art tools. That will change. I may end up boiling the ocean, but I’m going there to make an amazingly useful, crazy sexy design tool that inspires lust in artists across the world.

Games, Tool Design and Illustration
I will, however, still be writing essays on game design essays. This site isn’t going anywhere and may even grow in the future. Each passion is like the leg of a stool. I realized long ago that I need all three to be happy.

So…does anyone know any good board gaming groups in the Seattle area?

Take care

PS: ‘Oi’ to all the Anarkists who might be reading this. After so many years of listening to me sing random 80’s tunes, you may actually enjoy our new long distance relationship. ;-)

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Thursday, September 15, 2005

Back in America

I am once again sitting here at my much beloved desk in the lovely town of Boulder Colorado USA suffering from an excruciating case of jet lag. Some folks have the international travel bit down pat. I am not one of them. I’m seriously considering tooth picks props or perhaps large shots of adrenaline injected directly into my eyelids.

As I recover, I’ve been catching up on emails and a bit of reading. The trip to Japan was wonderful and remarkably busy. My secret plans for spending 40 to 80 hours slaved to an internet terminal were fortunately left unrealized. Luckily, I did get lots of time to write so there will be several articles forthcoming.

Some notes and musings from Japan…

The DS rocks as a portable platform in Japan
I used my DS mercilessly on long train rides and momentary stops during our extensive and epic shopping excursions. I appreciated the solid battery life and the fact that it was built like a tank. Half the time, I just left it in my pocket. The ability to pause the game instantly by closing the screen was a relationship saver. Taking five seconds to save a game is a huge no-no when the purchasing decision between two types of cute socks hangs on the line.

And did I mention the games? There’s a mess of them out in Japan that makes the DS a far more mature platform than it is in the US. Not everyone needs 3 mahjong titles, but I like platforms that have enough room for niches. We picked up Band of Brothers, a mahjong title and Brain Training. I’m having a blast watching Aya and her reaction to the various titles. She rarely games, but it appears that when you can take a game and tie it to a real world interest or goal, there is a much better connection. This bodes well for the serious games movement.

Japan knows consumerism
Shopping has been raised to an all encompassing art form. The wrapping paper, the polite clerks who seems to actually enjoy their jobs, the 5-stories of toy figurines shopping madness…it all brings a deep warmth to my capitalistic heart. And a stabbing pain to my wallet.

The vast majority of Japanese production never makes it outside of Japan (two-way foreign trade in 2003 was only 18% compared to 60% in China). The result is a rich ecosystem of Japanese producers serving Japanese specific needs. Items such as toilets, trains, red bean desserts are raised to almost insane levels of perfection. Combine this with one of the largest middle classes in the world, both highly educated and flush with disposable income. The result is an unending sea of excellent shops all competing based off their highly polished marketing, messaging and customer experience. Bad stores simple don’t survive.

When my fiancé complained that shopping in America was limited, I brushed it aside as the misplaced reminiscence of an ex-pat. Oh my god. Was I ever wrong. Shopping in America sucks. You were so right and I will never doubt you again in things related to shopping.

The competitive Japanese environment results in a rapid vetting of consumer trends. Certainly there are fads, but there are also deeper trends that can be witnessed. It makes me wonder about gaming in America. Video game sales are declining in Japan ( and if you treat them as a focus group for hyper informed consumers perhaps they are onto something. The reasons given? Increased cell phone usage and the same old genres catering to an increasingly hardcore fan base ( Will Americans wake up in a few years and figure out that the current game genres are boring, repetitious and that there are other uses for their valuable time?

I guess we’ll simply need to wait three years until cell phones in America are as good as those currently in Japan. Then we’ll see if the American video game market is still thriving.

Kawaii rules
I’ve been a closet fan of all things small and cute my entire life. It just sort of happened from an early age and I never really noticed it. The yellow New Beetle, the tiny Sony boom box, my miniature Panasonic A100 phone. It’s all so obvious in retrospect.

Visiting Japan was like being gay, living in Utah all your life and then one day getting a chance to visit San Francisco. Cute cars, cute phones, cute toys all out in the open, being used by common men and women as if it was the most natural activity in the world. Japan is a virtual orgy of unrestricted cuteness. My Puritan forefathers would be appalled. I was in heaven.

If you look at Japan’s future economic plans, they will be moving away from a manufacturing base, increase their technology spending, and begin investing more in their cultural exports such as anime, music, fashion and games. With China sitting next door and rapidly gaining high end production techniques, Japan sees its position as a creative brain trust to be the most defensible long term strategy. If their plans succeed, Japan with its export friendly kawaii-crazed culture becomes a major influencer of our cultural trends.

Manga is finally taking off in the US. Anime is growing in popularity. Video games are here to stay. Of EGM’s 2003 list of top 100 titles, a full 93 were Japanese in origin. Perhaps one day, my unnatural attraction to things that are cute will become normal, even celebrated.

Until then, I have my new Panda-Z toys. Sweet urban hip cuteness has never been so great.

America is sometimes hard to appreciate
In comparison, America seems like some post-USSR monstrosity. The cars-truck abominations are crude and lumbering, the airports attendees are rude and the shopping is like being processed in cattle plant. The politics make me cringe and the rolling suburban plains of Denver seem like some post apocalyptic wasteland.

Ah, the ennui of jetlag. Why is it that I only feel culture shock when I return to the US, not when I leave? :-)

All and all a wonderful vacation. Many thanks go out to Aya’s family who made us feel welcomed beyond all my expectations. I hope to return soon.

Take care

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Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Small Worlds

Today we accidentally visited the Ghibli Museum in Mitaka, Japan. It is a marvelous edifice, a fantastical ivy covered mansion straight from one of Miyazaki’s films that sits unexpectedly on the edge of a local park. We had fed the monster koi in the nearby lake and were wandering quite aimlessly about when we saw the sign. The sign lead to a gate, which in turn was occupied by a young Japanese man with immensely expressive eyebrows. Apparently tickets are nearly impossible to get even for locals, but we happened to arrive at a rare break in the reservation schedule. Entry was procured and we strolled in through the ornate gate expecting no more than a mild afternoon diversion.

The entire experience proved to be the most inspirational of the entire trip. Recommended.

One exhibit stood out for me. There is a scale model of a scene from an old animated television show called Heidi. The whole thing is approximately 10 feet wide and 6 feet deep. Carefully sculpted characters, the size of action figures, are frozen in time on a verdant mountain side amidst patches of brilliant flowers. Flocks of adorable sheep roam about. Most are white, but one or two are grey and black. A boy is paused in mid stride while a small girl runs towards him. The light, the shadows and the colors paint a 3D world that you can imagine springing to life at any moment.

“This”, I thought to myself, “is why I create games.”

Everyone who creates games has a vision of their dream game. It often isn’t so much a complete game concept, but instead is a taste or emotion drenched feeling of what the ultimate game might be like. This vision exists always just out of reach and striving to make it real is what inspires each of us to great feats of creativity.

Seeing this beautiful model reminded me once again of the visions that made me fall in love with video games. For me, the model of a hillside in an anime museum in Japan sparked ancient memories of playing Populous on my Amiga 1000. I remember idle hours spent dreaming of the little playful gardens that might one day be brought into existence by the simple act of imagination.

We seem to be getting so close. Advances in graphics and technology are beginning to allow those perfect worlds to be visualized in breathtaking clarity. The tools exist. The opportunity is there. All it takes at this point are visionaries of the caliber of those at Studio Ghibli. Where is our “Princess Mononoke” or “My Neighbor Totoro” full of boundless creativity? On days like today, when I am inspired by such examples of greatness, I say that we just need to strive a bit harder. The small worlds that light up my heart will soon be within reach.

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Thursday, July 14, 2005

News Flash: Game Designer gets the Hot Girl

I just wanted to leave everyone tonight with a message of hope. I am a class-A geeky fellow. Skinny neck. Polar white skin. Black T-shirts that say "In Odd We Trust". I spend my spare time collecting mint condition yo-yos and writing about the more obscure points of game design. The only person less able to communicate in a cocktail party setting is a theoretical physicist, and I've dabbled in that a bit as well.

And yet, despite all of this (or perhaps because of it?) one of the most beautiful women that I have ever laid eyes upon has agreed to marry me. She is smart, charming and plays a mean game of Mario Party. If she wanted to have a hot Latino waiter as a Latin lover, he would be hers. No questions asked.

Perhaps I wooed her with my long dissertations on the subtleties of the scientific method. Maybe it was an mutual appreciation of gelato. The real world is not a predetermined grind of stereotypes and cliches. Instead it is a marvelous collisions between improbable people, cultures and places.

Life: An amazing adventure where even game design geeks can be blessed with the love of a wonderful woman. Aw, I'm blushing.

take care

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Sunday, June 26, 2005

Confessions of a horrible game player

I'm a bad game player and I'm hoping that I'm not alone. I was just playing Kirby Cursed Canvas. The DS is one of the few hot spots of innovation in core game play mechanics, so I've been dabbling in various titles to keep myself educated on what is out there.

Kirby has some sweet gameplay ideas. The use of a touch pad to control a platform game is both enjoyable and intuitive. The reward system is solid and the use of tiered objectives lets casual gamers enjoy the title just as much as the experts. I played for a full five minutes before I turned off the DS in a fit of irritation. @#$%@# piece of...

Why I suck
This isn't Kirby's fault. It is a great game from what I've seen. I simply have some limitations as a gamer that prevents me from ever being hardcore. In an effort to present myself in the worst light possible, I will list them:

  • Poor reflexes: I couldn't Left, Right, Left, Right, Up, Down, Up, Down, A, B, Start my way out of a paper bag if my life depended on it. Complex sequences of carefully timed actions turn into gibberish when I get my club-like paws on a controller.
  • Irritated by repetition: I play games for enjoyment, not mastery. The first thing I do when I start a game is put the damn thing on "easy." The last thing I want to do is replay some section because I didn't circle strafe with pico-second timing.
  • Absent minded: I forget things. I may play a game for twenty minutes and then pick it up again two months later. If there were any skills that I had learned, there's a 80% chance I'll have forgotten them. The game typical responds with a gleeful "Gotcha! Instant death!"
  • Willingness to walk away: If a game gets too frustrating, I drop it like a rock. When I played Starfox Adventures, I had a blast noodling around with the exploration section. Then the evil designers tossed in a racing mini game. I played that thing about 15 times and got no where. At perhaps 30 minutes into the game, I put it back in the box and never touched it again.
I'd like to add impatience to this list, but I've put hundreds (sometimes thousands) of hours into games I enjoy. I could probably add basic stupidity, but somehow I managed to earn the cash necessary to purchase games. That gives me some say, despite my short bus status.

Horrible gamers unite!
Imagine that there are other non-traditional gamers like me. There are women. There are older men. There are young girls. There are even grandmothers. In a generous (and no doubt misguided) attempt to speak for all of the casual gamers in the world, here are some rules of thumb for designers out there if you want to appeal to the horrible gamers of the world:

Never kill me
Ever. Don't even think about it. Put me in second place. Tell me I could do better. Give me a smaller reward for trying as hard as I did.

There's a rationale behind this. If you look at play patterns, people tend to stop playing when they die. Very few people quit when they are doing well. If one of our goals is to encourage playing, then ending every session with a big dose of negative reinforcement is generally a bad idea. This encourage extended play only in masochists who get amped by pain and failure. Everyone else leaves the building.

Luckily, little boys tend to be masochists and so we've built an industry around them. Now we have to come to grips with the fact that in order to grow our industry, we need game play mechanics that appeal to normal folks, not just the masochists.

Never force me to repeat a section
I know you are proud of your lovely level design. I know I screwed up by getting too close to those spikes. But I was happy to have killed those first five monsters and the maneuver I did to get past the swirly dude was very impressive. Now I have to do it all over again?

When a player is thrown back at the start of the level you've tossed away all his hardwork and told him it was meaningless. This is the equivalent of telling a school child to write a report. Then when they miss a period at the end of the last sentence, you rip the entire report up and tell them to write it over again.

Always maintain my progress even if it makes the game shorter. Kirby would be an even more appealing game if I could just meander around through the levels in a sandbox mode. Keep the objectives, certainly. Most of the game can remain the same. At the end of the level, tell me how I've done. Couch it in terms of progress, not in terms of abject failure. "Hey, there's some cool stuff you could get if you wanted to try the level again." Many racing games where you race against time do this with great success.

Who knows, if the first time was fun enough, I might give it another go. The psychology of such a reward system is very different than a traditional console title.

Reward me for deigning to play your game again.
If I do pick up your game again after two months, let me know you care. Track the time I was away. It isn't hard with most modern machines. Welcome me back and give me the option for a refresher course if I need it. If I'm in the middle of a big fight and seem to be a bit clunky, go easy on me. Double my bonuses and make me feel like I'm the best damned player ever. Make me want to play.

Don't leave me with the feeling "Huh, I guess I suck at this game more than I remember." I don't have time to build up my skills again. And chances are that if the design forces me to reinvest in maintaining my skills, I'm just going to walk away.

In the world of casual games and MMOG, players give you money after they play the game. The demographics are different. The expectations are different. The underlying psychology of a reward is different. If, as designers, we don't understand these differences, if we don't question the traditional game mechanics that designers have relied upon for decades, then we will fail to capture the non-traditional gamer's dollars.

More importantly, I want more fun games to play. I'm selfish like that. :-)

take care

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Monday, April 25, 2005

The child and the glass of poison: Our social duty to educate

I was in a ranting mood today and entered into a conversation at work about legislation governing the sales of mature games. On one side were the folks claiming that it was all the parent's responsibility. "Glory to the western conservative ideal and the American belief in absolute independence." Bah, humbug. On the other side was my admittedly nuanced perspective.

It is not that I disagree the basic concept of individual responsibility. Certainly good stuff. However, your view of the world can't end there. We have a moral responsibility in two key areas:
  • We are obligated to help when a group is poorly educated and they are making decisions out of ignorance that are harmful to their well being.
  • We are obligated to ensure that our assistance is helpful, not harmful.
A simplified version of the dilemma goes something like this: Imagine a thirsty child with two cold clear glasses of water in front of him. One glass is simple water and is harmless. The other glass contains undetectable, yet deadly poison. You happen to know exactly which glass contains the poison.

In the viewpoint of the independent Linux using, anti-activist judge, western conservative, net-a-holic, porn addicted, GTA loving moralist you have no right to interfere with the child's right to choose a glass on their own. This viewpoint is utterly indefensible. If we possess critical information that may help someone make an informed choice then we should do everything in our power to educate.

Kids play M-rated games. You can say that they don't, but I know many who do. Why don't the parents step in? Because many parents still think that games are all played by kids. Folks in the industry and hardcore players may understand that the average age of game players is in the 30s and that there are mature game for adults and kiddy games for kids. But do parents realize this? Do they understand the difference between Gauntlet and Doom 3? Heck, the kids know more about games than the adults do. In many situations, it seems the kids get to make the choices and the parents must uneasily go along with the decision out of a profound inability to provide informed counter arguments.

So first we educate. We tell the store clerks about the bad things associated with selling M games to minors and give them lists of alternative genres and titles. We fund studies on the effects of violence games on children so we are promoting good information, not bad information. We give school money and training to teach kids alternatives to violent games. Like sports. Or art. We teach parents about the rating systems in place.

Do we hold the guardians of our children responsible? I believe the focus needs to be 99% on prevention and treatment of an ill, not punishment. We educate on the good path and we reward it. If punishment must occur, it is for the extreme cases, where abuse is undeniable.

This is a far cry from laissez faire independence. It is also different from the hellfire and brimstone approach that seems so popular on Capital Hill these days. I suspect it is the more difficult path.

Here are some ideas for responsible members of the game development community. Some already have been put in place and simply need a bit more reach.
  • Publisher dedicate X% of their revenue educating parents on the differences in game content of various categories. This needs to correspond with the reach of our industry and cannot be merely a few token advertisements. We make billions. We should be willing to give back millions.
  • Developers clearly label each and every title with the appropriate viewing category.
  • Retail locations clearly separate mature titles from titles intended for the general audience.
  • Game magazines identify their target audience and refuse to print mature rated articles or advertisements if their demographics reaches younger gamers.
If I watched the child drink the glass of poison and did nothing, would I be responsible for his death? Yes. Yes, I would.

- Danc.

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