Chungking Espresso

Potential Future Distribution of Newsgames

Posted in Columns, Newsgames, Schoolwork by Simon Ferrari on December 9, 2008

(co-written with Bobby Schweizer)

In response to Ian Bogost’s discussion of Platform Studies at the GVU Brown Bag, we raised the question of delivery formats for news games. (Bogost’s study deals especially in technical peculiarities of particular consoles, but we’ve adapted the idea for broader use here) We believe this is not just an important question, but a critical question for conceiving of newsgames. Not only do platforms imply different technologies affecting output, but they can also have an effect on audience. Though we can use some abstract and general concepts to begin designing our newsgame, the platform will dramatically influence its direction.

In order to do this, we unfortunately have to make some generalities. I say unfortunately because we don’t like generalities. Bobby believes that terms like ‘casual’ and ‘hardcore’ are better suited for the marketing departments than the scholars, though Simon disagrees. Either way, this is an intellectual endeavor with marketing results, so some amount of demographic lumping will occur. We hope to show that these groupings are already a result of the platform technology–that the hardware and platform interfaces are more suited to specific kinds of design. The obvious answer for a newsgame’s platform is web browser because it is ubiquitous and structurally connects with news websites. However, to think only about browser games is to limit ourselves to certain kinds of games. By focusing on these other platforms we can develop a broader range of games with greater possibilities.

To explore this question, we’re breaking gaming platforms into the following categories:
Web Browser, PC, Xbox 360/Playstation 3, Wii, DS, PSP. Through this discussion we imply/conclude that the Web Browser, Wii, and DS might be where we’d want to narrow the field of investigation for the future dissemination of newsgames.

Web Browser
This is without a doubt the most accessible means of newsgame delivery. It has a low barrier of entry in terms of required hardware and uses input devices that most anyone with a computer can understand. Anybody with webspace has a platform for a web-based game. The development times for these games are often much shorter and the shortened publishing pipeline speeds to process of deployment. It’s other greatest strength is also a weakness–the limited requirements for computing and graphics processing power of a Flash-based game make it accessible but limit possibilities for 3D modeled games.

The web browser ties naturally into news websites and provides for a direct connection between the story (or stories) and the accompanying game. I believe that if this were the case, though, news organizations would end up falling back on their written work to avoid coming up with ways to explain the story in the game itself. It is quite possible that I have this opinion because I am a game player looking for more complex newsgames, while an editor sees it as beneficial.

PC
‘PC’ refers to non-browser games. These games might be downloaded as applications to be run or installed that may be provided in physical format, download from the web, or through a client like Valve’s Steam. They have the potential for higher-end graphics and to use game engines like Unreal or Source. The Kuma games model is based on the Steam model: 3D game rendered with Source distributed through a download client. This works well when the designers want to place the player in a realistic environment and need more intense physics modelings. As we’ve discussed in class, this format is good for recreating scenes from the real world, but I think it’s limited to very specific range of games.

The client-based approach approach has the benefits of automatic delivery through a single pipeline like the consoles, but is not forced to use go through the corporate channels of Microsoft, Sony, or Nintendo. Steam users have grown accustomed to different kinds of games being available on the service whether it be a full 3D first-person game, a short puzzle game, or a 2D platformer.

The PC also allows users to look at material on the web at the same time. This could be the opposite of the browser-game interaction: instead of reading a story and then playing a game (which is how I imagine editors would conceive of the use-flow), the written material could inform the gameplay afterward. Also on the web exists the possibility of newsgame portals. Imagine a Newgrounds or AddictingGames specifically for journalistic games. The newsgame, as been shown in many of the examples we’ve looked at in the Journalism & Games project, does not have to come from traditional sources. It could develop a community of fans interested in the whole genre of newsgame and give developers a place to showcase their work.

Xbox 360/PS3
These two high-end consoles (not as high-end as a good PC) have two possibilities for delivery: the disc and the download. I’m going to say up front that I think these are the least valuable platforms for newsgame delivery. Their graphical capacities are so high, and the expectations for games on the consoles so demanding, that only highly-polished works are accepted by the community. Re-releases of retro games are popular, but only if they’ve been enhanced for HD or given blur effects that help hide their harsh pixelization. On the other hand, the PSN and Xbox Live network have shown themselves to be more open than the Wii in presenting art games (such as Braid, Everyday Shooter, and Space Giraffe) to the public. It’s hard to argue that this in any way trumps the distribution of these games over computers, however. On the other hand, if a newsgame managed to break into the communities developed by these two consoles then the company that made it could cultivate a dedicated group of fans. Now, most larger game companies can’t really afford the risk of making a AAA title addressing the ill impact of the American military on life in Iraq, say. But a smaller company such as The Behemoth, if it were so inclined, could definitely get away with it – maybe the video game analog of the “news graphic novels” we read about for our alternative journalism study considering The Behemoth’s use of cell shading and hand-drawing graphics.

We imagined the kind of schlocky idea of the Sunday Times sending out a game disc once a month the same way that the glossier video game magazines do. What are the content on these discs? Usually less-labor-intensive content such as prefab demos, article supplements that didn’t make it onto the print space, and simple games that could easily have been made in Flash that one plays in order to get gamerpics or some other small reward that can be displayed on one’s online community/forum avatar. In mid-November Microsoft will be unveiling its “Mii killer” new Xbox Live avatar community, featuring graphically-enhanced avatars and activities such as online gameshow-style games. It still stands to see how impressive these features are and whether they’ll catch on with the Xbox Live-ers, but the kind of avatar-based debate game with character progression and development based on quality participation judged by a moderator or survey of other players seems like it could find a home here.

Games produced for the Xbox Live Arcade might also be played by a certain sect of the population just for the purposes of accessing achievement points. This could be used as a way to draw in players who might not otherwise desire to access newsgame content. I think it stands to be explored in a later week to see how developing an achievement structure so online avatars can display a person’s access or engagement with news content or news games might engender more interest around the news with our generation of Internet- and avatar-crazed individuals.

PSP
With the launch of PSP Firmware version 5.0, the PSP has gained the ability to download games and content wirelessly from the PlayStation Network Store. This makes the PSP the first handheld to behave the most like its console counterparts and puts it in a unique position for newsgame delivery. Expectations for a PSP newsgame would fall somewhere between browser and 360/PS3. Its controls closer resemble those of the PlayStation 2 than its handheld competition the DS. The limitations of the technology–storage space, screen size, processing power–mean that developers can focus on more simple designs, but still benefit from having a standard controller scheme.

However, this standard controller scheme may be a burden. It forces unnatural mappings of any sort of mouse/pointer games we might find in browser or PC games which, like the 360/PS3 limit the kinds of games that can effectively be developed.

The PSP also has about half the userbase as the DS in the United States. While there is some overlap, this userbase is different than the DS. When considering these numbers in conjunction with what the hardware and software have to offer, the prospects of newsgames on the portable are not the most inspiring.

Wii
Graphically the Wii stands on much lower footing than its current-gen counterparts; however, this would seem to be a strength considering the lack of time and resources that many companies have when it comes to creating newsgames. The Wii already has news channel that tries to replicate the experience of reading a story on physical media: grab the page with the Wii Remote hand to move it around. While not nearly as engaging as holding a physical newspaper in one’s hands and filling one’s field of vision with the news-scape, this does seem to hit much closer to home for dedicated news readers than simply clicking on hyperlinks to navigate news stories. There’s also the fact that one can read news stories by navigating around a simplified Google Earth-type globe by grabbing the map and spinning it. This is a progressive information visualization that just isn’t seen on news sites today. Unlike the other consoles, the Wii already has multiple channels that aren’t game related.

The Wii Remote also seems well-suited to a game where players would be able to flip through television stations and perhaps magically enter the news story, TV show, or advertisement (to do some nice family-friendly adventuring and manipulation) a la Alice’s looking glass. This is outside the scope of our project, but it does suggest some interesting intermedia possibilites for the Wii’s special controller.

Read the discussion of the DS below to see what we think about Nintendo’s more open mission of providing educational games and games keyed toward children, the elderly, and businesspeople. Also of note is the discussion about Japan’s acceptance of alternative methods of education through media such as the manga.

DS
The Nintendo DS appears at first to have the greatest technological limitations of any of the other delivery methods we mention here, but really this is only true in terms of graphics–as we’ve discussed this may not be an issue. Instead, we turn to the DS’s main strength: the stylus and touch-screen. The stylus maps to how one uses a pen to explore a document. Regarding traditional games in print media, such as those Ray explores in his discussion of games in newspapers, the stylus seems to be the unqualified best candidate for such content. But we’re far from fully demonstrating the possibilities for persuasiveness and political power of games in the print media at the moment. Still, there’s definitely something to be said for the tactile quality of holding the stylus pen. There’s a reason businessmen in Japan and 40-somethings in America are playing games like Brain Age on the DS – you feels like you’re doing semi-productive brain work when you hold the stylus.

The best DS games force players to effectively use both screens to min-max their play activity. Let’s look at The World Ends With You as a premiere example of this. While playing this game, it’s difficult to tell whether your brain is creating novel, efficient synaptic connections or just decaying into ADHD. This is because the player has to control one avatar with the stylus in the bottom screen, while using the four-direction control pad to direct a secondary hero’s simpler actions in the top screen. This is taxing even for a hardcore gamer such as myself, so the character in the top will go into auto-pilot if left idle – but it won’t be as efficient or quick with its attacks. In any case, the second screen almost always adds a helpful UI that can visualize information more conveniently for most games (as opposed to opening up a map or help screen separately on the main screen). The microphone also picks up basic actions such as shouting and blowing, which seems tailor-made for something like a British Parliament simulation. Coupled with the DS’s less intensive graphics, all of these features seem like they’d be major strengths for delivering newsgames with smaller design budgets.

But what about delivery? Well, for the current model of DS lites one has to have the taboo Revolution 4 chip to download games off the Internet, and its wireless features are wonky. This is why future newsgames will really only be conceivably accessible on Nintendo’s recently announced DSi. This new hardware will feature robust wireless capability and download service. Since Nintendo bills itself as the future of casual and alternative gaming (engaging children at a young age and now the elderly and business-minded), I don’t think it would be much of a stretch to convince them that delivering newsgames to the DS could be anything but a benefit to their company profile. Especially considering the fact that alternative methods of delivering educational content through manga is a popular trend in Japan. The DSi also comes with two cameras (one for each direction, don’t ask why) – field journalist simulation, perhaps? The new DS will play MP3, but no sound recorder has been announced. If it did, that would also be a strength for a journalism game. Coupled with a creative community of contributors used to uploading content (like as Spore or Little Big Planet), you’d have a robust online news community or forum that we’ve been mentioning as something that might be crucial to developing a following around news games in the future.

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