Chungking Espresso

baby steps (card crawl)

Posted in Gaming by Simon Ferrari on March 16, 2015

crawl

I’ve been playing a bunch of Card Crawl (iOS) over the past couple of days. It’s a solitaire game that gives the usual card suits a genre makeover. Instead of diamonds, clubs, hearts, and spades you’ve got coins, shields, potions, and swords, all numbered from 2-10 (I’m teaching Bartle again in a couple of weeks, so this metaphor is resonating with me). The face cards have been taken over by monsters, ranging in strength (again) from two to ten. You have a max health of 13, and your goal is to survive the dungeon while maximizing the gold you collect.

So it’s an optimization puzzle with a hefty bit of randomness; the spice here is a set of magic spells of various degrees of usefulness. One might help you dodge a particular bad “dungeon hand” (the selection of four cards you face at a given time), while another allows you to vampirically damage an enemy, while others kinda “break” the game by allowing you to manipulate numerical values or morph cards completely.

In the “normal” mode of the game, the barkeep randomly shuffles in five of the spell cards that you’ve unlocked. In “constructed,” you get to pick your five. The point is always to chase a higher gold score, and there are global and friend leaderboards to help you out here. The juicy risk/reward enters in by means of the shop, which will trade your useful items for more gold. Sadly, I’ve left my friends in the dust (Jason Killingsworth used to be my favorite nemesis, but he’s busy playing ARAM, or whatever it is Rioters do), and I’m quickly gaining on the global leaders.

I’m anxiously awaiting an update to the game that will let me customize the dungeon deck further. Until that glorious day arrives, I’ve devised a system to make Card Crawl a little harder for myself. The goal here isn’t so much to make it brutal, but to increase the degree of mindfulness that the game requires. I’m still tweaking these, but here is what I’ve been doing if you’d like to pep up your crawling game:

Souleater: kills you if its damage will take you to one or two life

Troll: immune to spells

Goblin: ignores shield

Spider: when it damages you, potions become ineffective until a new dungeon hand

Slime: if you have a sword when one appears, you must use it on the slime

Crow: when it dies, you must sell whatever is in your backpack

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How To Write A Book About Games

Posted in Game Analysis, Gaming by Simon Ferrari on February 28, 2011


This is my informal, uninvited rant for the week of GDC 2011. A few months ago, I signed on to serve as a technical editor on a book project being undertaken by two of my favorite game designers. In order to help them on their way, I scrawled an early form of this article on a napkin. This isn’t meant to lambast any one book in particular; rather, it should be taken as a broad diagnosis of what happens when one begins a book with the idea of writing about games-in-general, perhaps with the goal of authoring a text that will be “foundational” to the field.

First, select your “-ism.” Google your “-ism” plus “games” to make sure nobody else has used this “-ism” already. If they have, and it’s the only “-ism” you’re familiar with, just find a synonym or portmanteau. This will define your entire project. It’s important that you’re absolutely in love with the way you write about your “-ism.” You don’t have any clue what your readership might be, so get a name from another field to write on the back of your book that you are “essential reading for anyone studying games.” Another viable strategy is to write about “Games and X,” with X being a bad paraphrasing of three or four thoughts from an old/dead white dude.

Open with World of Warcraft. World of Warcraft is to game studies what Heart of Darkness was to your AP Literature exam in high school: it’s the perfect example no matter your “-ism.” Lay on us the existence of gold farming and the fact that Azeroth’s economy feeds into our own right away, because that’s heavy as all get out. Be sure to forget the difference between classes and races when you gloss “things you can play as.” Be sure to mention the number of hours you’ve logged in Azeroth; everyone will be impressed, really.

If you have to mention earlier MMOs, just say something about Everquest widows. This will serve as your segue into the topic of problem gaming. If you’re writing about game development ethics and practices, you can combine the subject of Everquest widows and EA Spouse into a subchapter titled “Widows and Spouses.” Pretend MUDs never existed, because otherwise you’d have to actually read something by Bartle post-“Players Who Suit MUDs.”

Within your first 20 pages, you’re going to need to type the names “Jenkins” and “Bogost.” Next, you need to find some kind of ridiculous reason to disagree with them, because they are the establishment, and you hate having to type their names. Popular choices include attacks against fandom for the former and claims of neoliberalism for the latter. Quotes from Raph Koster should be considered mandatory. But don’t talk about Chris Crawford, because then you’ll never finish your book.

Unless otherwise noted, these are the games you are allowed to write about: Halo, Grand Theft Auto (just pretend Grand Theft Auto III is where the series started and stopped), Civilization, Doom, Zelda, Mario, Resident Evil, Tomb Raider, and September 12th. No other game deserves more than one sentence (non-compound).

If you’re a male writer, cite vague feminist concern about both the game industry and gender representation in mainstream games. But, whatever you do, don’t acknowledge the vital contributions of female academics and designers including Flanagan, Taylor, Consalvo, Pearce, Brathwaite, Anthropy, or Laurel (and on and on). Instead, just copy-paste some ethnographic survey numbers. The older these numbers are, the better. Or, make some up: “.06% of female fetuses played Gears of War vicariously through their mothers in 2009.” Be creative.

Do mention Murray, though, because everyone loves Tetris. And because, if you don’t mention her, she will eventually find you, roll her eyes, and shrug.

Just pretend that fighting games and shooting games are the same kind of simulated violence. And only use examples from the latter, because none of your reviewers have any idea how fighting games work. Find some egregious quotes from over-caffeinated suits at a major publisher, to show how despicable action games really are. Then mention that the U.S. Military uses shooting games for recruitment and training, because nothing the U.S. Military has ever used or created could be seen as good in any way by anybody. If you talk about competitive gaming at all, pretend that it only exists in Korea. That way, you can derail the discussion with a rehash on problem gaming in PC bangs (they smoke cigarettes in those places!).

When in doubt, “Me-high Chick-sent-me-high.”

If you’re a neo-Marxist, certainly include a throwaway quote from Galloway. But don’t, under any circumstance, cite Wark. In contrast to his radical, expressive prose and brilliant digital peering scheme, the Word document that only you and your editor will ever see becomes unbearably depressing. If you were Ivy League-educated, be sure to disdain the upper middle class as constantly as possible. That will show daddy who’s boss now.

Inconsistent referencing is a must. Include hundreds of meaningless quotations from Nintendo and Sony representatives, preferably taken from the New York Times or Wired, to get your readers as hot and bothered about videogames as possible. But, when you make broad claims about how games work and what people do with them, don’t cite anybody. Especially not another academic.

At some point, you’re going to feel tempted to talk about how computers work. This is going to be a disaster if you try to go into any detail whatsoever. Instead, your mantra here should be “Moore’s Law.” Just type it out a few times, then scribble something about “artificial intelligence” and “graphics and audio” in between. You will need to mention that, at one point, computers used to fill entire rooms.

Woah, just think about it for a second. Woah.

Moore’s Law is actually an inverse metaphor for your entire project, because you’re essentially spinning a page-length abstract’s worth of new contributions into 200 pages.

You have to decide which Will Wright game to “critique.” Go with Sims if you’re looking for a wide readership. But if you’re writing this book about videogames primarily for nerds, do Sim City. Don’t even think about analyzing Spore if you’re valorizing hackers or modders anywhere in your book, because then you’d have to admit that most hackers, modders, and user-gen creators care almost exclusively about stuffing phalluses into every game possible.

Try not to normalize your spelling of common terms. For example, within any given page you should include all of these: “digital games,” “computer games,” “digital computer games,” “video games,” “videogames,” “games,” “hardcore,” “hard core,” and “hard-core.” Use the words “mechanics,” “rules,” and “features” interchangeably.

Finish with a note on your optimism for the future of indie game development.

Just kidding, you’ve never played an indie game. Go with ARGs instead.

around the internet web 2

Posted in Gaming, Miscellany by Simon Ferrari on February 18, 2011

You know Tom Bissell? Perhaps you have read his book? Tom and I have a letter series up on Paste, moderated by Kirk Hamilton, on the subject of (what else?) writing about videogames.

 

Over at Brainy Gamer, Michael Abbott performed a short experiment to test our arguments from the opening chapter of Newsgames. Result? Success!

 

My first review for Kill Screen is going up soon; it’s about Solar Minotaur Rescue Frenzy. I play it a lot these days. There are also these two older columns that I never got around to linking:

1) why Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood is a better western game than Red Dead Redemption – “When a Bell Tolls”

2) why Call of Duty games need the infinite enemy spawn – “Popping Smoke”

 

Finally, I’ve been assigning and editing this semester’s posts for the Newsgames blog.

 

Enjoy,

xoxo

around the internet web

Posted in Gaming, Miscellany by Simon Ferrari on December 6, 2010

I just read this late-90s text on contemporary art, and it actually used the term “Internet web.”

If you hadn’t already noticed, I’m not making any attempt to recoup this blog as a space for original writing. I’ve got an upcoming regular gig at another games crit site, so, no harm.

Two exciting things today.

The Flourish is my ultra-short conversation piece for the In Media Res digital curation project’s “Gaming” week. It’s about Tokido and the rhetoric of fairness in sport. Special thank to Brandon Amato of Georgia State for the invitation and the editing.

Over at Game Design Advance, there’s an Another Castle podcast with me kicking off the second season. I talk about how I got into game studies, how we wrote the newsgames book, and why I want to study competitive gaming.

Where Did Unfinish Go Wrong?

Posted in Gaming, Miscellany by Simon Ferrari on October 6, 2010

(a minimally parodic “interpretive note” on Lunenfeld’s “Unfinished Business,” for media theory class)

I’m always depressed when I read old essays valorizing MUDs (or MOOs). It’s almost as depressing as reading about the unfulfilled future of hypertext, but I didn’t have a stake in hypertext. I spent six years of my life playing a MUD called Achaea. To this day, it remains the most martially and socially complex game I’ve ever played. It was essentially a MOO, but the “orbs of creation” were only held by players who’d ascended to divinity (and thus had become paid administrators and creators).

I got my hands on an OOC once, when I was Guildmaster of the Druids. We druids were custodians of the forests, and we were always having problems with arsonists, infernals, and occultists. The latter two could eat the hearts of their fallen enemies to fuel their demonic “essence,” but it was easier for them just to kill plants. Rogue druids, overcome by greed to control the market for salves and potions, would often overharvest plants and kill them. It was our greatest concern that some of the more rare plants of the world, the ones that couldn’t be easily purchased from NPC merchants, might at some point become extinct.

I used the orb of creation to build a garden in our guildhouse, locked by a key without any copies. In the event of a catastrophic over-harvesting, I’d be able to re-plant an endangered plant from my secret crop. This never happened, so even I didn’t visit the place. Soon after I stopped playing, the guildhouse was destroyed. I can’t even remember if I handed off the key to the guy who replaced me. I don’t know if anyone else ever saw my elaborate room descriptions or floorplan.

For Peter Lunenfeld, MOOs represented the hope for a future aesthetic of unfinish. In his essay, “Unfinished Business,” Lunenfeld described how the Internet would cause great changes in how we think of space, narrative, and time. We’d come to embrace a kind of digital derive, exploring cyberspace without end or direction, bringing back stories to tell. And creators would replace product with process. Works of art and information would be in a never-ending flux of possibility. Some of them, like MOOs, would be configurable (Aarseth’s term) by any and all users.

One species of unfinish that Lunenfeld derided was the cross-media release of Johnny Mnemonic. For him, it typified a bad breed of unfinished narrative that had replaced story with character. The goal of these synergistic media packages was nothing more than continued economic gain. Today, Johnny Mnemonic is par for the course. It’s what we call a “transmedia strategy,” and it’s super hot right now. People get paid to talk about how it’s the future, even though what they really mean is that it’s the present. And it’s an exciting present.

Process has also replaced product in journalism. When people say things like, “journalism is dead,” they really mean that product journalism is dead. Product journalism is what newspapers made. Millions of years ago, product journalism gave rise to a profession called “journalism,” which had a set of values including, but not limited to: verification, objectivity, and transparency. Now that profession is dead, because it turned out that citizens can do journalism. And many of them will do it for free, which means that we don’t need to pay people who pretend to belong to a dead profession.

Process journalism is what the blogs do. It’s when you take a bit of information from an email one of your friends sent you and publish it as the news. If you’re a “tech blogger,” you spend a lot of your time deciding what product press releases to publish on the hour. Your readership expects you to say something funny about these press releases, because the Internet is for humor and the news. News is about what you should spend your money on and how many “troops” died today in a country we know nothing about.

The idea behind process journalism is that the news is always unfinished. Product journalists were always putting all this work into their articles, pretending that they knew what was actually going on. They treated the news like it was something static. But we know now that everything is dynamic. Super dynamic. So if we publish something that’s wrong, we can just edit it later. Sometimes our readers know more than we do, so we take the information they give us, insert it into our articles, and then delete their comments without so much as a thank you. Unlike journalism, blogging doesn’t pretend to be a profession; it’s an intermediate step between unemployment and working in the videogame industry.

Videogames are also unfinished business now. If you spend four years of your life making a videogame on a disc, it’s just going to get ripped by a twelve-year old in Eastern Europe and distributed for free on the Internet. To counteract this, we now typically spend a little less than a month to make a videogame. Videogames are now primarily referred to as “social games.” We hire a bunch of business school dropout kids to design the things, because they’re the experts on how to “gamify” things that are boring. Gamification is when you add experience levels to everything. Gamifying something doesn’t make it less boring; it just makes it into a game.

These social games, because we only spent a month or so to make them, are pretty damn unfinished. Once a game doesn’t break as soon as we turn it on, we release something called a “minimum viable product.” Then we get bored house-wives, -husbands, and office drones to test the game for us for free. After another month of MVP, games enter a perpetual state of “open beta.” Beta means “unfinished business.” The goal of a game in open beta is to pull as much money from stupid, desperate human beings as possible. Some of these people will leave other unfinished business, like taking care of their children, to focus on our unfinished business.

Peter Lunenfeld also thought that virtual worlds would redefine architecture, but we now know that virtual worlds are “so yesterday.” He also hoped that the aesthetic of unfinish would somehow elongate time, helping us to one day escape our own mortality. But, really, all we’re doing is helping people ignore it. The final frontier of humankind is a -ville.

INDIECADE 2010, THE SPICE IS NICE

Posted in Gaming by Simon Ferrari on September 3, 2010

IndieCade finalists have been announced here.

Messhof was robbed. No, literally, I stole his skateboard. SEND HIM MONEY.

There are videos of all of them all on one Internet, courtesy of Dejobaan.

I am proud to have been a juror this year.

I am excited to be on this schedule, with all of these sexy people I respect.

Even if they gave us the buffer period after the through-midnight period of drinking/awards.

I will be talking about The Molleindustria. The Molleindustria will be in attendance. TOUCH HIS HAIR.

//ARTGAME SESSIONS, October 9, 10:00am-11:00am//

Artgame Sessions takes the position that game designers use game design and its mechanics, player goals and thematic premises are a form of expression in the same way painters use line, color and form to express themselves. The core of games — interactivity — provides an experience and a point of view. Through a series of four short talks, audience members will come to understand some of the motivations and goals of the artgame movement. These presentations will not be made by the developers themselves. Instead, other game-makers and academics will examine the developers’ approaches to making artgames and the play experiences they provide.

Naomi Clark, Simon Ferrari, Charles Pratt, John Sharp

BRING THE SPICE

Breach

Posted in Gaming by Simon Ferrari on March 26, 2010

This isn’t as cool as it looks. Tom rubbed off his “B.”

Atomic Games is here at PAX East. They’re not showing off Six Days in Fallujah. Instead they’re giving a sneak peak of (what I sincerely hope is) an early beta of their new XBLA project, Breach. It looks like and plays like a really ugly Bad Company without a crouch button (that I could find, anyway). Let me back up.

The only reason I walked up to this booth was because I forgot the name of Brink and thought for a second that it was called Breach. Tom Cross and I walked up to this booth for what I thought was Brink and began staring absently at a demo of not-Brink-but-Breach.

“Who is this by?”

I noticed that one of the boys playing the demo had the word “BREACH” fake-tattooed on his lower arm.

“What game are we looking at?”

A beautiful Indian woman walked up to me and Tom. I knew what was coming.

“Do you want a Breach tattoo?”

“No, thanks, I have real tattoos.”

“But they don’t say Breach, do they?”

(She had me there). “No, they don’t. But I really don’t need one, thanks.”

“They wash off.”

I realized at this point that I was being rude and that I should let her do her job. I was causing a scene. Jerry Holkins was standing a few feet away, asking what the hell this game was. I wanted very much to not be causing a scene in front of him, because he makes comics that make fun of people.

“I know, but, okay.”

I braced myself for what was about to happen. I knew that, as far as the physical sensation went, I would be enjoying myself. Once when I was in Paris I went to get my hair cut. The woman who volunteered her scissors was quite beautiful, and she smelled good, and she had auburn hair on her arms and her hands were soft. I knew it was going to be like that. But I don’t have a problem enjoying a haircut and having somebody whose job it is to wash my hair run her fingers through it with warm water and shampoo.

“Where does it have to go? Can I just put in on my wrist?”

I pulled back my sleeve, she grabbed my left hand. Her thumb pressed into the soft place in the middle of my palm, pinky to pointer bracing it from below. Her hand was warm. She asked Tom to hold her spray bottle.

“I don’t have three hands,” laughing.

That wasn’t a Shakti joke. I bet they gave her a script for this. The same script they give to the white girls. Tom took the bottle. She pressed the tattoo to my wrist.

“Your hands are warm!”

There’s no way she actually thought my hands were warm. I thought her hands were warm, which means that, to her, my hands had to be cold. The script again.

“Yeah, well, I’m wearing a sweater.” I turned to Tom, “I’m not wearing deodorant, they wouldn’t let me bring it on the airplane.” I was testing her, as if I were sitting at an ELIZA terminal or something.

“You didn’t have to tell me that,” eyes smiling.

That was her throwing an error and spitting out a default. After that, she didn’t have anything else to say to me. She took the spray bottle from Tom, gave my wrist a few sprays, and pulled the paper away to reveal the BREACH. It was crooked, because I guess I’d started shaking at some point.

“It was almost awesome,” moving onto Tom now.

While she was doing Tom, I asked her what company was making Breach. That’s when I found out it was Atomic Games. I asked if they were also showing Six Days in Fallujah this weekend, and that prompted her to go get a slightly older woman whose scripting authorized her to answer that question. It turned out the older woman was just a packet switcher whose job it was to find a man dressed like a soldier for me to talk to.

They aren’t going to be showing Six Days in Fallujah, because the game isn’t finished. They’re using the development of Breach to add new features to the Six Days project, “but the art’s all done and ready to go.”

I told him that I was really happy they were going to be releasing Six Days someday. He said that they’d gotten a lot of that lately. I told him that I was publishing a book in August about games that engage with the news, and that the Atomic/Konami fiasco featured heavily in our chapter about documentary games. And he gave me his card.

I looked at the card just now; it doesn’t even have a human’s name on it:

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Ada Lovelace Day 2010: Janet Murray

Posted in Gaming by Simon Ferrari on March 24, 2010

In 1997, Janet Murray published Hamlet on the Holodeck. It was one of the first attempts, from within the humanities, to gauge and classify the storytelling potential of the digital medium. Except for the notable influence of Brenda Laurel’s earlier research into computers as theatre, Murray drew primarily from the work of programmers and designers at Xerox PARC and DARPA. She combined technical knowledge with years of experience as a scholar of Victorian literature and science fiction. While recognizing a potential for the misuse of technology, she predicted a utopian future where we would co-create narratives of romance, danger, and exploration within a seamless virtual reality. This is considered a primary text of the “narratology” school of game studies, although Murray herself has always encouraged others to study games as distinct from their capacity to tell stories.

Murray explicated the four essential properties of the digital medium: it is procedural, participatory, spatial, and encyclopedic.

Procedurality refers to the computer’s ability to execute code.

The computer is participatory insofar as it responds to input.

Spatiality means that the computer can model space and time.

The encyclopedic capacity comes from the computer’s ability to store more information than any prior physical media.

Murray’s discussion recognizes that procedurality is the medium’s unique and defining trait, but she gives them all equal consideration. She pairs off these properties to explain where complex structures in computing come from. Procedurality and participation combine to form interactivity. Spatiality and participation together lead to the navigability of virtual space (following the advent of the graphical user interface). Encyclopedic capacity and spatiality give rise to the field of information design, primarily concerned with organizing data to make it more transparent, accessible, and compact.

Read the rest of the post at The Border House.

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.

AirplaneAdventures
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.

domestic
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!

Design Sketch: Achievement Wars

Posted in Gaming by Simon Ferrari on August 8, 2009

XBOX Live, or a website with access to achievement databases such as 360achievements.org, should create a game where players can battle each other, Magic-style, with their achievements. Achievement structures in online services and consoles have reached saturation. World of Warcraft has them now, Flash sites have them, every console except the Wii has them, and Steam has them. There’s even an iPhone app called Booyah! that gives players achievements for writing journal entries about their real-life betterment experiences, such as hanging out with friends and exercising. Now that the market is saturated and achievements are a requirement instead of something that sets a platform apart, we need to figure out something to actually do with them. Because XBL already allows outside websites to draw on their databases for the instantaneous creation of GamerCards, like the one you see to the right, I think the 360 achievements would be the best system to build a Magic-style game upon. Those Playstation trophies you see on the card below the XBOX one? I had to add those manually. Sony needs to get its act together.

Here is the beauty of building a game on top of the 360 achievement structure: instead of having to buy booster packs to supplement your playing deck, you would just buy games. This would definitely drive sales on downloadable games. You could begin by designing the game around a limited number of disc and downloadble titles, perhaps the top sellers for the console. This would ensure the maximum number of potential players for the core game. Just as Magic releases subsequent evolutions of tournament-playable card series, you would slowly integrate new games into the system to drive the sales of those games. If the game were popular, devs would probably petition you to integrate their games into your system. At the least, it would fetch a decent amount of advertising revenue.

The most common cards in any trading card game are the energy, mana, land, resource, etc. cards. The most common achievement come from progressing through a game (ie: “You completed level 1!”). So these achievements would be where you drew your resource cards from. Instead of having elemental or color-based decks, you would base decks on the game genre. First-person shooters would be create an aggressive deck (Magic‘s red), simulation games a defensive deck (Magic‘s white), etc. Achievements for making certain numbers of kills against an eneemy type or with certain weapons would make your base creature cards. Obviously, the achievements renowned for their difficulty would grant hero cards. You could easily limit the number of these allowed per deck or in play. Achievements for executing tricky feats in games or finding secrets would become your spell and artifact type cards.

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