Chungking Espresso

A Case for Mods

Posted in Columns, Gaming by Simon Ferrari on August 14, 2009

Written for Sande Chen’s “Game Design Aspect of the Month” blog. A reply to this post by Reid Kimball.

Reading Reid’s article, I found myself agreeing with everything he was saying (except perhaps the knock on physicians for their love of pharmaceuticals, which I’m sure he and I can debate heatedly some other place, some other time). That said, I found it sorely lacking in one practical consideration: convincing a publisher that it would be worth their money investing in an advocacy game. Although The Sims shows that a boring game can move units, Maxis takes a decidedly apolitical stance incongruous with the idea of making a game strictly for advocacy. I’m a fledgling academic and designer, so I don’t have the industry experience to speak here with certainty; however, even in academic game design emphasis is placed on the proof-of-concept. I imagine this works quite the same when pitching a game commercially—a working prototype does persuasive wonders that even a thorough design document could only dream of. I’d like to suggest a form of one-session game that would make strides toward convincing people that advocacy games are commercially viable (at least on a small scale).

One relatively early text in the theory of political games is “Ephemeral Games” by Gonzalo Frasca, who later went on to design the first newsgames September 12th and Madrid. In the article, Frasca asks a question that has been circulating in game design blogs (especially Clint Hocking’s and Manveer Heir’s) recently: how does it affect the impact of a game’s ethical decisions if we allow the player to take them back by loading a save? His answer was the “OSGON,” or “one-session game of narration.” The idea was to make it clear to the player that they would only be allowed to play the game once, after which their copy of it would lock them out. This, he thought, would ensure that players made decisions carefully and would forever reflect on the consequences.

Interestingly, in the past few weeks two such games were created. One by Terry Cavanagh, called Airplane Adventures, asks the player not to release their mouse. When they eventually do, their plane crashes; on reloading, players receive not another chance to play the game but a message, “YOU HAVE CRASHED.” Another game by raitendo, You Only Live Once, tells the story of a Mario-type who goes on a quest to free his girlfriend from a Bowser-type; when the player dies and tries to hit continue, they are treated to a series of humorous cartoons depicting the aftermath of their avatar’s death. Neither of these games can be played again without clearing out your Flash caches. Raitendo explored the same idea with Free Will, which endlessly cycles the player’s failed attempt at the game after they die (though this can be reloaded). Note that neither of these games feature ethical decisions, cues that the game cannot be replayed, or could be considered models for profitable advocacy games. To my knowledge, a politically-minded OSGON has never been created. Frasca himself opted for games that almost demand replaying.

Putting aside the idea of an OSGON, I’d like to suggest another type of small-scale project that, if successful, would serve as a proof-of-concept for the public’s willingness to engage seriously with an advocacy game: the mod. Mods have always enjoyed a curious existence on the fringes of mainstream gaming. One reason for this is that they are, to date, available only to PC gamers. The other is that they are only advertised on personal blogs and forums. Every once in awhile, a publisher will observe the quality and quiet success of a mod and decide to purchase the idea—the best example being Counter Strike. The makers of another mod, Killing Floor for Unreal Tournament 2004, found funding after the mod gained popular attention in gaming magazines; eventually the makers polished the mod into a standalone game and sold it on Steam this year.

Of course, you can see some problems here: the best examples of profitable mods are shooters, and as online games they demand the kind of replay addiction Reid avers. What hope does a political or educational game have in such a market? On the other hand, mods have been popular in the academic and artistic game design circles for quite a while. Mary Flanagan’s [domestic] is another Unreal mod that takes players through the interior of one of her traumatic childhood memories. One day, while walking home from church, she saw smoke billowing from her home in the distance… she knew her father was inside. [domestic] allows players to move through an expressive 3D recreation of her burning home, the walls textured with prose and the ever-present FPS gun replaced by a fire extinguisher. Escape From Woomera (Source mod, I believe) was designed by an Australian art collective in order to expose the machinations of a government-run camp for illegal aliens. The press wasn’t allowed inside the camp, so the game was pieced together from accounts by those who had been interred there. Finally, Medieval Unreality (Unreal mod) is an abstract trek through a nightmarish landscape designed collectively by some of the victims of the infamous Albanian blood fueds.

All of these games take less than an hour to play, and the replay value is fairly little. Also, they fall into the problem of being a bit too “serious” or “boring” for the average player (with the exception, perhaps, of Woomera). Another possibility would be to build the political mod into the existing structure of an open-ended game. Humana, the health insurance company, recently realized that it pays to keep their customers healthy rather than letting their health deteriorate to the point that supporting them becomes cost-prohibitive. Thus, they have begun inviting student interns to design health advocacy games for them. Many of these are ARG-types, but one is a mod for (you guessed it) The Sims that helps elderly men and women understand the importance of basic monitoring and medication. The mod also makes it easy for the player to understand the purposes and uses of any medical devices the insurance company or doctors may have suggested for them. Again—this is an admittedly boring example, not exactly what you’d show a publisher to pitch a larger game. But who’s to say that somebody like Reid couldn’t make a similar mod that simulated the lifestyle choices he had to make on learning that he had Crohn’s disease? Such a mod could be used, at the very least, to prototype mechanics that would prove that it would be intriguing to have a AAA protagonist with a disability, disorder, handicap, or disease (this was, I believe, attempted in Condemned 2 with alcoholism).

One of the reasons I only have boring examples to show you is that, for the most part, these mods weren’t made by working game designers. Although the lives of most designers are already strained by hours on the job, more and more professionals are leaving the big companies to start their own or work independently. In the coming years, I think we’ll see more short-length mods with mainstream appeal and “serious” aspirations coming down the pipe. People are already willing to pay between $1-$8 dollars for an iPhone game… so I think the acceptance of micro-sized, niche-interest games can only be considered to be on the rise. Thanks for reading, and if I’ve gotten any specifics of the life of working designers and publishers incorrect here I hope you’ll take the opportunity to educate me instead of flaming!


3 Responses

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  1. Reid Kimball said, on August 15, 2009 at 2:03 pm

    Good thoughts. The only thing a designer has to remember is that mods can’t be sold. The example of Counter Strike is very rare. It’s best to assume the mod is for experimentation and not get ones hopes up too high.

    The other thing, especially if one is to use a mod platform based on Source or Unreal is that they require teams to do high quality work. Not to the level of AAA quality but high enough to be taken seriously. Where does someone like myself find skilled artists and programmers would want to work on my Crohn’s disease game? Most of the modders want to do MP, something that will get played multiple times.

  2. Simon Ferrari said, on August 15, 2009 at 3:17 pm

    Hey Reid! Yeah, good point about not being able to sell mods unless they get picked up by the people who originally made the engine to develop further.

    There is only one example I know of where professional designers worked (I think unpaid) on an advocacy game, which was Pictures for Truth. That game, which I wrote about for the News Games project, was funded by Amnesty International and covered the difficulty of journalistic endeavor in China. It was made in XNA over the course of probably a few weeks or months by a few people from Ubisoft.

    Now, I think the only way you’d get professional designers in on something like the mod I suggested would be to seek out the people who’ve been wanting to work on stuff like this for awhile but, like you, don’t have an existing network to link you. A good for step would be simply gathering like-minded individuals for discussions in the IGDA boards or or TIGSource, etc. You have people like Borut Pfeifer of EALA just up and leaving their jobs to try to make current issues games and more personal projects on their own, so there have to be people who want to find the satisfaction of these kind of projects but don’t want to leave their paying jobs.

    I’d say, taking the example of the Pictures for Truth people, that a good way to go about doing this would be to solicit the help of students and educators who already get funding for this sort of thing. I know, for instance, that Ian Bogost has funding for a Games and Health project. They’ve made some mods to show what macular degeneration looks like in the context of an FPS. And that was just one research assistant working with him. There needs to be a lot more interaction between working designers and students. I don’t know where your studio is located, but I can guarantee you that if you popped an email to the head of the closest game design, digital media, information design, etc. program and asked if there were any students looking to work on such a project (or already had funding for that kind of thing) you’d get a positive response.

    The only issue then is the time commitment and the lack of immediate payoff. But wouldn’t this kind of thing only help the portfolio of a working designer, say a level designer, who wanted to make a move up to a higher-paying job?

    • Reid Kimball said, on August 15, 2009 at 5:31 pm

      Great suggestions. Will have to do some planning.

      I do think it would add to the portfolio of a working designer. Employers are always impressed when people work on extra projects outside of their day job. When I interview for a job, I always get comments/questions about my closed captioning mod for the hard of hearing/deaf in Doom3.

      OK, enough of me talking, I need to start doing!

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