Some Stray Thoughts on Gamification

Yesterday, Slate featured “I Don’t Want to be a Superhero”, a scathing critique of gamification by Heather Chaplin. “Gamification”, for those who don’t know, is the term applied to the idea of integrating elements one might find in games to real-world activities, such as collecting badges for checking in at restaurants, bars, and other places on Foursquare. Reaction to the article has been mixed, though you wouldn’t necessarily know it from my twitter feed – I follow a lot of people who make games, and a great many of them are quick to hold Chaplin’s piece up as evidence of all that is wrong with gamification, that most vile of practices that would trick people in to enjoying mundane or consumerist tasks with the promise of an artificial reward on the other side of it. I’ve witnessed and been involved in a handful of conversations about the article since it went up, and thought I’d use this space to collect some of the thoughts I’ve had in one handy location.

- Gamification is not a new thing. If your school or local library growing up had a program offering rewards for reading (x) number of books in a month, that was gamification. If you ever collected Kool-Aid or Pepsi points to earn prizes, that was gamification. If you were in Boy or Girl Scouts and earned merit badges to proudly display on your sash, or used Weight Watchers, or earned stickers for good behavior in class, or got a free sandwich after getting a card punched ten times that was gamification. The idea of offering incentives for seemingly common-place tasks is older than computers, to say nothing of the internet and social media. To assume the only possible outcome of gamification going increasingly digital is droves of the great unwashed lining up to give corporations money in exchange for a momentary zing of accomplishment is jaded cynicism at best.

- Gamification is a tool, and tools are not inherently good or evil. It’s frankly strange and disappointing to see so many people who create tools and systems for a living dog pile on gamification as nothing more than another weapon of the Man, to rush so quickly to the negative and completely ignore the equal (if not greater) potential for good. Even now as more and more articles, lectures, and rants point to the backlash against social games as the same close-minded approach parent’s groups and others take to traditional videogames, so much of the games industry happily uses that same brush to paint all uses of gamifcation as bad and manipulative.

- If you haven’t read Nicholas Lovell’s “The 10 Rules of Gamification” at Gamasutra, you really should.

- Heather Chaplin’s article has some good points and concerns, but is far more interested in being a misinformed personal attack on Jane McGonigal and her book Reality is Broken. She paints McGonigal as a sap of the evil corporations, a well-meaning but dim servant of those who would ultimately shackle humanity’s free will to the point that we want nothing more out of life than to sign over our friends’ personal information in return for a 25%-off coupon at Wal-Mart. I have no problem with someone not liking the idea of gamification (I’m not 100% comfortable with everything it entails, or the worst-case scenario applications it could lead to – a feeling I have about, y’know, most things in life), but Chaplin isn’t content to stop there – no, she has to be something that can only possibly be bad, going so far as to dress it all up in nightmare Orwellian imagery. Her moral superiority at not wanting to play along in any fashion punctuates the article throughout, completely undermining any point she may have had. Rather than a convincing argument, I came away from the piece with the sense that if Heather Chaplin doesn’t like it, then no one else can either.

- There are and will be people and companies who use gamification to try and manipulate people in to feeling rewarded for consuming their products, and that is pretty scummy. I don’t think anyone outside a board of directors meeting is arguing that. But to dismiss the entire concept because of the possible negatives uses is close-minded and cowardly. There are licensed games that take what they’re given and run with, creating rich, fun experiences, and there are others that crank out a boiler-plate platformer in a couple of months and never look back. Should all licensed games be dismissed and hated because some are just cash grabs? Zynga’s Petville is a pale shadow of their richer Frontierville and Cityville games, focused almost entirely on wringing money form players for virtual goods. Does its greed mean all social games are little more than cash siphons?

- Chaplin says reading about the game McGonigal created to help her recover from a concussion made her “sad”, and that she couldn’t understand why she couldn’t just call and get help from her friends and family without making a game out of it. I’ve spent as much of my life as I can remember making a game out of reality, from turning the backyards and playgrounds I grew up with in to all kinds of different worlds and games to plotting out the best way to weave through the Greenpeace and Children’s International solicitors in Madison Square Park without getting stopped. If reveling in my imagination and using it to better enjoy the world around me, if making a game out of life is something to be pitied, than frankly, Heather Chaplin, I’m perfectly fine never having your respect.

Lost in Useless Territory

This is my favorite memory from playing Fallout: New Vegas:

I was wondering the desert fairly early on in the game and came upon a small camp held by Cesar’s Legion. There were maybe half a dozen soldiers and two slaves, men taken from a town in the South the Legion had raised, and I had a lingering side quest on my Pip-Boy 3000 to save them. From my position on a small hill, I figured I could kill at least three of the soldiers with my sniper rifle, and then pick off the others as they charged me. The problem with this plan, however, was at the time I was on neutral terms with the Legion, meaning I could pass them in the world without them going for my throat. Due to New Vegas’ wonky system where killing members of a faction make the whole group hostile towards you even if you don’t leave anyone alive to tattle, I was in the tricky spot of deciding if it was worth invoking the wrath of an entire army over two slaves, or if I should just move along.

Luckily, a third option presented itself. While surveying my surroundings, I spotted a pair of Giant Radscorpions, horrible creatures that will happily tear through you or anything else in the game that happens to get to close to them, prowling near the camp. I shot one of them, not enough to kill it but enough to get both of them good and angry, then ran in to the Legion camp and past the soldiers with them hot on my heals. The soldiers opened fire on the Radscorpions, the Radscorpions opened up the soldiers, and the two slaves, unarmed and terrified, bolted for the wastes. After that, it was just a matter of chasing after the slaves to free them while their captors were busy with the giant bugs I’d sicced on them. Quest complete, no harm to my standing with the Legion, and everybody wins, except for a handful of slaver jerks and two monsters nobody liked to begin with.

There are lots of other moments in Fallout: New Vegas, of course. There’s a tangled story with loads of choices to make along the way, complete with different outcomes and consequences based on which way you go. There are companions to meet and befriend, a settlement of Super Mutants to discover in an old ski lodge, and of course more underground Vaults to explore, many complete with their own horrible secrets. As fun as many of them are, though, what sticks with me the most about the game is the same thing I loved so much about Fallout 3 – the massive world it all happens in, and the potential for random stories that are all my own to happen there. Unfortunately for New Vegas, it’s how far short its Nevada desert setting falls of its predecessor’s Capital Wasteland that I remember more than most of what I did there.

There’s just not a lot to do there. Oh, sure, there’s multiple warring factions, which makes things interesting, and the writing and variety of voice actors in Obsidian’s game are overall better than in Bethsoft’s Fallout 3 (that said, I can’t tell you how happy I was to get to the part of the game where I had the chance to silence Matthew Perry’s strangely monotone drone forever), but when it comes to the setting, there’s no contest. For a wasteland, the world of Fallout 3 was teeming with secrets to uncover, random scenes scripted or otherwise to stumble upon, and countless opportunities to take on a given situation from any of a dozen different ways. My favorite moments in the game come in the second half, when the landscape is dotted with Enclave patrols and checkpoints, many of which you tend to find trading shots with the local populace or wildlife. New Vegas has these to a degree (another fun memory: travelling with NCR patrols or merchants and their body guards along dangerous roads, watching them get attacked by Cesar’s Legion, and then looting the losers, all while getting safe passage to wherever I was headed), but not nearly to the same degree. Fallout 3 certainly had its flaws, but it more than made up for them with a wealth of things to do however and whenever you wanted, or just completely ignore. New Vegas, on the other hand, ultimately feels empty and a bit dull despite all its strengths. It has the better story, but when that story is all there really is too do in the huge world they’ve provided, who cares?

I like Fallout: New Vegas a lot, but I haven’t finished it. Instead, I went on to play Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, a game with a much better handle on what it means to create a world you want to get lost in, and from there to DC Universe Online, where I can hang out with Batman and explore made-up cities I’ve read about for most of my life.. I love open-world games – I have well over a dozen of the things, all lined up under my TV like the Magrathean Spring Catalog – but I love them for their potential for depth and variety, not the size of the world or even their main plot. I want playgrounds, not guided tours, and while Bethsoft’s inevitable return to Fallout is guaranteed to have a an enormous epic plot line, I can also trust them to give me plenty of things to do instead.

While My Guitar Gently Clicks

Last week publisher/destroyer of worlds Activision announced they were discontinuing the Guitar Hero franchise. It’s a strange thing to hear, though not a particularly surprising one – Activision’s way of handling a successful game is to glut the market with as much of it as possible, and in the few years since original developer Harmonix split with the company but left the Guitar Hero name behind, there have been something like a dozen new entries in the franchise. This isn’t the first time they’ve run a good idea in to the ground with quantity over quality (see Tony Hawk, among others), and it won’t be the last. There will inevitably be a day when even the yearly arrival of mighty Call of Duty is greeted less as a returning hero and more like Randy Quaid’s character in the National Lampoon’s Vacation movies (or just Randy Quaid himself, I guess). The writing on the wall for Guitar Hero, with each year’s installment(s) and the peripheral-based music game genre in general in a state of decline, it was only a matter of time before Activision’s massive-success-or-death business approach saw them putting a spike through both the games and the people making them.

So no, not so much surprising, but strange. I’ve always had a special affection for Guitar Hero, even though I left the series after the second entry to follow Harmonix to the vastly superior Rock Band games. The first Guitar Hero game was released in my first year at a game designer, and it’s funny to me, given how huge and commonplace the games went on to be, to remember trying to explain to my bosses at Pop & Co. about this thing I’d read about where you played songs with a plastic guitar, and how we should get a copy for the office. After reading Kieron Gillen’s excellent “More Than a Feeling” piece for the Escapist about Boston-as-level design savants, I knew I needed to try the thing, and my love for the series was instant and pure. It was just such a good idea: a music game lovingly built by a bunch of musicians-turned-developers for everybody else that somehow emulated the feeling (if not the actual practice) of not only playing guitar, but doing so in front of a packed house of screaming fans. It was fun and funny, something you played with and against friends, passing the controller around to see who could come closest to perfection or at least fail most spectacularly. There are songs I hadn’t given a second thought to until Guitar Hero opened up them up and labeled their vitals with colored gems – I still can’t hear Franz Ferdinand’s ‘Take Me Out’ without seeing button presses scrolling down the screen.

Beyond the fun I had playing it, Guitar Hero was a large part of shaping my thinking as a game designer so early on. Beyond the friendly difficulty levels and helpful tutorials (which Harmonix would only improve upon over time), there was the effect the game had on the majority of those who played it – I know several people and have read about more who picked up actual instruments for the first time because of the games, or dug guitars and drum kits out of storage for the first time in years after a night spent with friends and a toy instrument. It was the first time I’d ever seen a videogame have that sort of effect on someone, to take it beyond the satisfaction of a high score or difficult challenge mastered and actually encourage players to try something new with their lives.

(Which isn’t to say Guitar Hero was met with universal admiration. Some people just don’t like or don’t get rhythm games, and others could never get past the perceived embarrassment of mashing colored buttons on a kid-size guitar. And then of course there are the more tedious detractors, people who are often actual musicians themselves whose response to the game inevitably boils down to “why don’t you play a real guitar and quit wasting your time?” To which I’ve always asked, “why don’t you rescue a real princess?”)

I’m not sad the Guitar Hero franchise is shelved for the foreseeable future – the first installment after Activision completely took it over struck me as hollow and joyless, a feeling that only grew as endless sequels and installments follow, and in many ways it feels like a mercy killing. Any and all bad feelings I have are for the developers, many of whom are now or will be unemployed as Activision shutters their studios and throws them to the mercy of a desolate job market with little to no interest in music games requiring special controllers. I honestly don’t know how anyone works for an Activision studio without constantly picturing CEO Bobby Kotick hovering overhead with an axe twenty-four hours a day.

So Guitar Hero is gone, at least for the time being, and other than the lives directly impacted by its mothballing, I don’t really mind at all. As far as the series drifted from its roots (there’s an entire other post or two that could be written about how Harmonix perfected and built upon what they knew worked while Activision tacked on boss fights, mini-games, and any other mechanic they could find to keep things fresh), none of the lesser titles bearing the name can tarnish the love I had for those first two games or how much fun they still are to take for a spin. Guitar Hero was a big part of shaping my approach to game design, and then as now, when I’m again trying to figure out what’s most important to me as a designer, I’m grateful for all the fun I had with it and its lasting influence.

Games I Want to Make, pt. 1

- A simultaneous turn-based game pitting two players against each other and the game itself. Each turn, players must prepare to manipulate the game’s input against each other without leaving themselves open to harm from either their opponent or the impartial game.

- A game where your environment is made up almost entirely of loose dirt and rocks, like the bottom of a mine shaft after a cave-in. To climb up and out, you have to use a device (some sort of special McGuffin, doesn’t really matter) to knock out the dirt above you so that it falls to the ground, forming piles and small hills you can scale. Environmental hazards (pockets of gas, underground rivers, etc.) exist to avoid, as well as lost treasures and other survivors to rescue if you want. (2D side-scroller perspective?)

- A top-down shoot-em-up, using magnetic charges instead of bullets. Player ship fires energy pulses that positively or negatively charge enemies and environmental objects, causing them to be smash together or repel each other violently. Ideally, parts of the environment can be wrenched out of the walls on the left and right sides of the screen by magnetic pull to go flying at enemies.

- A game for multiple (ideally younger) players where one player serves as a nuturer for the others, helping (and possibly hindering) them as they progress through the game world. A negative feedback loop personified, keeping the field more or less even and frustrations low, while including the potential for a very different experience each play session depending on who is in the nuturer position. Ideally, the game needs to fulfill this statement from a friend of mine’s seven-year-old daughter:

Sometimes my friends get upset when they lose at games. And it’s not fun anymore. So when I play with them I let them win. It’s still fun for me, though, because I like a challenge. And it’s just as challenging to make someone else win as it is to make yourself win.

Obviously presents huge balancing challenges, but not impossible.

Expertology & You

As part of my ongoing effort to figure out what exactly I want to do with this space (where “ongoing” means “every once and while, when it occurs to me”), I’ve borrowed an idea from the Michael Bay school of thought – in place of direction, make it bigger. So I’ve added a tumblr to the site, as that’s what all the kids are in to when they are driving around in their raps and shooting up all the jobs. If you also have a tumblr, feel free to follow me and I’ll follow you back.

Right now the idea for Expertology & You is two-fold: give me a place to throw random odds and ends from the internet that I think are interesting, funny, or whatever else but don’t feel like writing a full post here about, and to ease me back in to the routine of blogging. I don’t want this to be a “sorry I haven’t posted” post, but it has been a while, and I feel a need to give this space some purpose beyond talking about other people’s games I like or don’t like (which is what it’s largely been so far). Whether that means talking more about game design and my own work, side projects I’m involved in or looking to start, or just posting screen grabs from Parks & Recreation with text from The Dark Knight Returns over them is what I’m trying to work out now, and the new tumblr (you can get there via the tabs at the top of the page) is part of that.

It’s a process.

Done With Penny Arcade

This is roughly the same as something I put on my Facebook earlier today, only expanded in a few places and with a few pre-coffee typos cleaned up (and better, post-coffee typos added). A friend of mine asked me to post it somewhere easier to get to than the comments section of a wall post, and as I’ve meant to blog more for the last, oh, year or so, it’s going here.

Depending on how invested you are in videogames and the culture around them (and who you follow on Twitter), you may or may not be aware of the recent fervor surrounding mega-popular webcomic Penny Arcade, a shirt they made that offended a bunch of people inside and out of the videogames industry, and their subsequent removing of the shirt since earlier this week. The whole thing started last August with a strip called “The Sixth Slave” that involved monsters called Dickwolves, who’s only purpose was to rape their prisoners. Some people, some of whom were rape survivors themselves, took offense over their beloved webcomic suddenly throwing the sort of trigger words and imagery that can often bring about PTSD from their attacks, and wrote to Jerry Holkins (Tycho) and Mike Krahulik (Gabe) to let them know. In response to these complaints, the pair released a shirt in the style of a sports jersey for the Dickwolves, as well as other Dickwolves merch. Mike also posted to the Penny Arcade site mocking trigger words and those affected by them (see his post here, under “Dungeons and Dragons”), and they declared that anyone who took offense or was potentially traumatized by the trigger words had decided to find it offensive. There are also reports of them and their fans trolling feminist sites and other blogs taking offense at the strip, but I don’t have links for those. Sorry.

Flash forward to this week, when Courtney Stanton, a project manager in the games industry and rape survivor, wrote a blog post entitled Here is a Thought: Why I’m Not Speaking at PAX 2011. PAX, short for Penny Arcade Expo, is a gaming convention that grew out of the webcomic’s incredible popularity and now features two shows each year with thousands upon thousands attending. Courtney Stanton’s post (which you should take time to read) explains how, given Penny Arcade’s making and selling of Dickwolves shirts and merchandise, she no longer feels that PAX is the welcoming, inclusive environment it was meant to be. You can probably imagine why a rape survivor wouldn’t want to attend a show full of people wearing and selling shirts that could potentially bring a world of horrible memories rushing back. In response to her post, the forum trolls of 4Chan and Penny Arcade’s own forums have spent the last week spamming her email, Twitter, Facebook, and blog comments with images that just say RAPE RAPE RAPE over and over again, claims that she deserves to be raped again, threats to rape her to death, accusations that she’s lying about what happened to her and only doing this for attention, and claims that she’s trying to censor Penny Arcade (which is only true if you subscribe to the Tea Party definition of “censor”, but whatever). At one point the Dickwolves shirt quietly disappeared form the Penny Arcade online store (without comment from Holkins or Krahulik), which only made their fans more rabid. At no point did either of the Penny Arcade creators address their fans while this was going on – Jerry Holkins has kept quiet through all this, while Mike Krahulik took to making whiny posts on the PA forum and his Twitter about how a “small, vocal minority” had forced them to take the shirt down. Given the the devotion of the trolls already attacking Stanton, it’s really hard not to read this as indirectly encouraging their behavior.

Finally, late last night (the 29th), Holkins posted a statement to the PA site that you can find here. It’s more of the same “us against them” dialogue that he’s kept up since this first became an issue, a begrudged non-apology wherein he continues to play the victim of a bunch of joyless funwreckers who have bullied the most popular webcomic on the internet in to doing something they didn’t want to do. It makes no mention of the attacks their fan base have carried out on Courtney Stanton and others, it continues to marginalize the people who took issue with the shirt (while making no mention of the industry pressure on them and PAX to get rid of the shirt), and invites anyone who still has a problem to “chat about it at PAX” with him. Y’know, PAX, that event you have to buy a ticket to. Then there’s the thing of him posting this on a Saturday night, well out of anything resembling peak traffic time for a site that only updates Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. His statement is being put out with the trash, and will be gone on Monday with the new comic and news posts.

This is hardly surprising, given Krahulik’s behavior on the internet lately. When someone asked about people wearing the shirt to PAX in Boston, Krahulik replied that he’d be wearing his. When asked what the creators’ wives and female employees thought about the shirt, he said his wife (who apparently now speaks for all women) was disappointed they took it down. When someone tweeted at him congratulating them for doing a good thing by taking down the shirt, he replied “tldr” (or “too long, didn’t read”).

I’m by no means saying the Penny Arcade guys are all bad: In addition to PAX, Penny Arcade is also responsible for Child’s Play, a charity that has raised millions to buy games and gaming equipment for children’s hospitals everywhere. PAX itself has, up until now, had a reputation for being a friendly, welcoming convention for any and everyone. Apparently, though, that welcome only lasts so long as you agree with everything the creators say or do. Their reaction to someone publicly saying that shirt they made contains trigger words and imagery that could really mess up victims of assault and rape is to announce they’ll be wearing theirs to the show. Their handling of the situation has been passive-aggressive at best and cowardly at worse, and has pushed me to the point of not wanting to be a part of anything involving them. I’ve read their strips regularly for nearly ten years now. I’ve bought stuff from their stores, donated to Child’s Play, and had plans to try and attend PAX in 2012 or the year after. Not any more. There are other webcomics to read, other things to spend my money on, and other charities to donate to doing good work. I’m sure Tycho and Gabe won’t mind.

The Dickwolves thing is far from over, and it’ll be interesting what next week brings. There are a few questions I and probably several others are very curious about in all this:

- Where is Jerry Holkins in all this, and why is he keeping silent while his partner continues to make them both look like tools?

- Mike Krahulik has spoken before about having PTSD reactions similar to what others with PTSD go through, only related to drugs and drug abuse. If that’s the case, why isn’t he more understanding of why someone would be hurt by his mocking of trigger words and going out of his way to encourage it in others? (Update: Apparently he’s never publicly described what he goes through as PTSD, so I’ve changed the wording to reflect that.)

- Apparently Krahulik has told one entire person to lay off Stanton on twitter. When, if ever, is he going to rein in the rest of them? Do the Penny Arcade creators really not understand that they’re at least partly responsible for the storm of hate and death threats their devoted fans have been hurling for the last week?

UPDATE: Debacle Timeline has a full timeline of this whole mess, starting with the original strip and continuing to update with any relevant turns of events as they happen.

Dogz and Catz Living Together, Mass Hysteria

While changing over the layout of the blog a few weeks ago and updating the bits of it that inevitably broke while doing so, it occurred to me I never said anything about Petz Fashion: Dogz and Catz coming out for the Nintendo DS earlier this summer. Let’s fix that now, shall we?

Petz Fashion: Dogz and Catz (henceforth referred to as just Petz Fashion) is a new installment in Ubisoft’s long-running series of pet sims where you adopt an animal (in this case, a puppy or kitten) and then take care of it, seeing to its needs by feeding, watering, and cleaning up after it, buying it new toys to play with, brushing its fur, and so on. The games have done incredibly well for Ubisoft, as evidenced y the ever-growing amount of shelf space they take up in stores – this is Powerhead’s third Petz title so far, and Ubisoft has an internal team devoted solely to developing even more games starring all sorts of animals, including monkeys, dolphins, and horses (oh my). Some are collections of mini-games, others let you carry pets over from one game to another and even breed them, and some are just straight-forward pet sims in the style of the super popular Nintendogs games. Petz Fashion is the latter, which for my first foray in to the world of artificial animal friends I was happy about, as it keeps things a bit simpler. None of that circle of life business going on here, thank you very much.

Of course, it’s not just a pet sim – as the title suggests, there’s also a fashion component. Petz Fashion follows in the footsteps (paw prints?) of an earlier game by another developer, Petz: Dogz Fashion, which featured (among other things) a narrative about fashion shows starring your canine companion, a bunch of clothes to dress them up in, and a collection of mini-games to play. For Petz Fashion we took a more stripped down approach, culling the narrative and mini-games in favor of having fun with your pet through more free-form play. We also added the ability to adopt a second pet without starting an all new save file, allowing players to switch between the two whenever they wanted from a toolbar on the DS’s Touch Screen. While there are still loads of fashion shows to attend and plenty of encouragement to do so in the form of invitations arriving once your wardrobe is up to snuff, special outfits and other prizes to take home, and more, the player is free to go through them at their own pace. Despite the name of the game putting the spotlight on fashion, it was important to me and the rest of the team that caring for and playing with your pet remain the most important aspect. You can’t attend fashion shows if your pet isn’t healthy and happy, for instance, and taking time during the prep phase of each show to make sure your pet is well-fed, groomed, and in good spirits is a big part of your final score. While Petz Fashion is hardly a how-to guide on how to successfully raise a pet (and was never intended to be), we wanted to enforce good pet owner habits across the board. Nobody wants a real-life version of Parker Posey’s character from Best in Show, after all.

Along with the Fashion Shows and how much fun it remains to just play fetch with your pet or get them to chase a laser pointer, I’m really please with how well performing tricks worked in to the game. It wasn’t something we originally planned for, but as production moved forward and we kept talking about it, we eventually all agreed that it would be fun if your pet could perform tricks – not just as a special animation at the end of a successful walk down the isle at a show, but on command. One of the rewards for acing the game’s fashion shows is your pet building up a collection of tricks it can perform via a menu on the Touch Screen or by speaking in to the DS’s microphone, from the basics of sitting down and rolling over to chasing its tail and break dancing (as the finer breeds of show dogs and cats are known to do on occasion). While I generally don’t like the microphone on the DS (too fickle, too embarrassing to use in crowded places, and often too gimmicky in execution), it was pretty great the first time our lead programmer got his dog to sit by telling it to. It helps that there’s a menu option for tricks as well, allowing you to show off your pet’s moves without causing a subway delay after somebody decides to see something and say something.

It’s a good game, and one I’m proud of, particularly considering the blink-and-you’ll miss it schedule the thing was on. I’m pleased with how much there is for the player to do, from buying new toys for their pet, attending fashion shows armed with a gigantic wardrobe and more clothing customization tools than have ever been in one of these things, or just taking pictures of their pet in mid-air as it leaps from the couch to attack a red dot on the floor. Whenever we came to a crossroads or impasse during production, we tried to stop and ask ourselves “What’s more fun for the player? What would a person playing this game want to do here?” As a designer, I consider one of my main jobs to be an advocate for the player, to constantly keep the wants, needs, and priorities of the people who are eventually going to be playing the game front and center over the course of development. With Petz Fashion, I think we pulled it off nicely.

Talking About Talking About Comics

Long time readers (yes, yes) will recall the heady days of 2008 when I wrote a not entirely regular column about comics called Comics Are Expensive. Each installment featured a handful of reviews of the books I’d bought that week, covering a wide spread of offerings from the likes of Marvel and DC to tiny self-publishers and everything in between. It was mostly fun while it lasted, and while I don’t regret it at all, I think the experience has put to bed the idea of doing a weekly column about anything for a good long while. While I still love the format (the idea of a place for people to show up each week to hear about things they like is hugely appealing), weekly columns are bastard hard things to write, both for the amount of time each piece takes and the challenge of keeping it interesting. No matter how wide the subject matter appears to be at the start (and “comics I bought this week” is a fairly massive expanse), it quickly begins to feel narrow and limiting as fears of repeating yourself begin to creep in around the edges. Rereading the lot of them recently, the lack of truly negative reviews really stood out (at least to me) – there are books I love, books I like, and books I don’t like as much. While it fits with the rather dubious from the start mandate of the column covering books I bought that week, I can’t help but wonder if there were any readers struggling with the idea of there being someone so full of love and and light for comics of all sorts and sizes as to never run across deserving of more than a friendly “not for me, I guess”. If you thought so then or now, let me reassure you that I hate all sorts of comics. I just don’t buy them, is all.

The other thing that hit upon rereading them all (and, at long last, the point of this post) was how many of them I’m still happy with. Like most people who do anything creative, I hate the vast majority of what I write upon rereading, seeing only typos, overused tics, bungled attempts to be more clever than I am, and a dozen other reasons why I should pack it all in and never lay fingers to keys again. And while there’s plenty of that spread over the dozen or so columns I managed, I’m ultimately pleased with how much I managed to get right. With that in mind, and to keep them from disappearing in to the ether like so many other things I’ve written for web sites over the years, I’ve gathered all of Comics Are Expensive here on my blog-thing. Each are timestamped with the day they first went live, as the Dead Milkman did that once with a tour diary from the eighties and I thought it was clever. You can find them by clicking on the Comics Are Expensive tab in the column on the left, or by clicking on the links I’ve handily included below.

1. Teen Titans #55, Avengers: The Initiative #9, Suburban Glamour #3, Captain America #34, Northlanders #3
2. Fantastic Four #554, Tiny Titans #1, Nova Annual #1, Uncanny X-Men #495
3. Umbrella Academy #6, Immortal Iron Fist, Crossing Midnight Vol. 2
4. Rasl #1, Kick Ass #1, Action Philosophers Vol. 3
5. Atomic Robo #4-5, Buffy the Vampire Slayer #12, PS238 #29, Casanova #12
6. Comic Book Comics #1 and Maintenance #9
7. Incredible Hercules #115, Fear Agent #19, The Boy Who Made Silence #1
8. Transhuman #1 and Proof #6
9. Echo #1-2, Resurrection #1-4, Criminal Vol 2. #1-2
10. The Damned: Prodigal Sons #1, Scarlet Traces Vol. 1
11. Invincible Iron Man #1
12. Minx Special
13. Superman Beyond #1

Trials HD and Trying Again

I love the simplicity of the controls in Trials HD. One button makes the bike go, one button makes it stop, and slight taps to the left stick makes the little guy lean forward or back on his bike. It’s everything you need to get through the game’s many stunt tracks, from the earliest “this is what a ramp looks like” tutorial stages to the crueler gauntlets of explosions, falling I-beams, and jumps so ridiculous you’ll spend so much time in the air as to wonder why you’re dirt bike doesn’t come with an in-flight meal. With just three inputs mapped to the most natural feeling bits of the Xbox 360’s controller, Trials HD gracefully nails one of the more important aspects of any good game – you feel completely in control of your character, and when you mess up, no matter how much you yell and curse at the broken remains of your driver and bike, more often than not you know it was you who failed, not the design of the game.

And you will mess up. A lot. You’ll hit ramps at the wrong speed to make a jump, or be going fast enough only to realize your position on the bike was all wrong, ending your run (and the structural integrity of your neck) in a messy face plant and sharp crack that echoes through the abandoned warehouse-turned-stunt track-turned abattoir each of the tracks are set in. Or you’ll fly too high, a motocross Icarus for the X-games generation, only to land so hard the shocks in your bike collapse in on themselves and leave you eye level with the underside of your tires. Or you’ll tumble in to a clutch of exploding barrels. Or you won’t be fast enough to get across a bit of collapsing track in time. Or any of a dozen other horrible things will happen, resulting in the always fun sight of driver and bike ragdolling themselves to bits against the environment.
Which brings us around to my favorite part of Trial HD’s controls – the reset buttons. At any time, alive or dead, you can hit one to send you back to the last cleared checkpoint (helpful for avoiding frustrating bits you may have lucked through, but later hurting your final score), or you can hit the other one to start the whole level over. Thanks to the smallish size of the game and the whole thing living on the 360’s hard drive, resetting a level is an instant process, with no loading screen giving you a horrible few seconds to reconsider the merit of beating your head against a stunt track-shaped wall. With the push of a button any disaster is wiped away as though it never happened, nothing left of it by a distant, painful memory from a past life where you leaned forward a bit too much at the wrong time.

Trials HD gets a lot of things right – it’s lovely to look at, its camera, despite being fixed, is fixed just so that you rarely think about it if ever, and it’s challenges, while often utterly bastard hard, escalate in such a way that you almost don’t notice when they turn in to devious Rube Goldberg devices of death and flame. But what I love it for, what I most admire and keep coming back for, is its ability to keep me around for one more go. No matter how frustrating a level might be, no matter how sure I am that I did everything right only to die in a flurry of shouted curse words, I’m always in for one more go. The ability to instantly reload a level, the scores of my friends (and how I’m doing against them) displayed across the top of the screen, the way the track falls apart around me as I stumble towards the finish line, often on fire and seconds from death, it all adds up to one of the most addictive games I’ve played in ages. At it’s best, Trials HD manages real magic, wiping away the urge to throw my controller through my very nice television with a push of a button, replacing my pure rage with the faith that this time, this one time, I’ll do everything just right and stay on the bike and moving forward long enough to cross the checkered line.

When designing games I’m personally not a big fan of traditional binary fail states. I think in a lot of games they break up the flow of play in unnecessary and frustrating ways – being around to deal with the consequences of not doing as well as you’d hoped or needed to and having the chance to make it up is a more interesting design challenge for me than who shot first and fastest. In a game like Trials HD, though, I’m just fine with the Groundhog Day-esque cycle of death and rebirth nameless stunt guy is trapped in, as developer RedLynx have made it just so compelling. Cringing and laughing out loud as your latest botched run sends your little guy in to a physics-upped flurry of broken bones pretty much never gets old, taking the edge off even the most crushing defeats. Between a failure sequence so entertaining it becomes more of a reward for trying in the first place and the ability to instantly start the whole thing over with the push of a button, it becomes clear why it can get away with some of the mind-boggling (on first brush, at least) level designs they throw at you.

Yes, it can be an intensely hard game at times, and yes, there have definitely been moments where all I’ve wanted in the world was to see my TV explode in a shower of sparks and broken dreams as my controller flew through the screen. That I never do, instead stabbing the Back button with all the rage I can while growling “One more” at the hapless rider on his bike as he reappears at the start of the track before gassing the engine, is where it becomes clear just what sort of game Trials HD is. It’s not about getting everything exactly right the first time, it’s about learning from each and every mistake, finding the perfect degree to lean at for a jump, positioning your bike just right for landing, ad slowly discovering the correct blend of insane risk and precision needed to get from one end of the track to the other as fast as possible while remaining in one piece. It’s one of the best “just one more go” games I’ve played in ages, and looking at the ways it quickly funnels you back to the starting line, siphoning off just enough anger to keep you from quitting in a rage (or at least postponing it), it’s not hard to see why. Trials HD is a master class in balancing fun and frustration, giving players all the tools they need to become good enough at the game to perform incredible feats of dirt bike derring-do. Making the most useful tools the subtlest is something I’m very much trying to learn from.

Of Sleds and Status

So a few months ago I wrote a post weighing in on the whole “are games art?” thing. It wasn’t exactly a new topic at the time, and several (often smarter) people and articles appearing in industry magazines and sites have gone on to beat the point even further in to the ground, but it was nice to get out of my head and written down, and it prompted some nice discussion with friends, so it was worth it. One of those discussions* was a comment-turned-full-post in response from friend Jones that I totally meant to reply to at the time, but then totally neglected to do. I get distracted easily. Things come up. You know how it is. At any rate, I’m linking to it now, and suggest you go read it before continuing as I’m probably going to talk about it a bit. Go on. I’ll wait.

When Jones’ post first appeared I scrawled some notes in a little notebook towards an intended response, but the me of now is having trouble working out what the me of June was going for at the time, so I’m mostly going to wing it. For a bit of context, Jones very much comes from an art background, having been involved with pretty much everything considered (or at least argued) to be art, from acting, music, writing, painting, comics, a stint in videogames, and a few others I’m probably forgetting. He also ran a small art gallery for a few years, which on top of all the rest means a few things: he drinks a lot, is prone to cynicism, and usually knows what he’s talking about. As such, I feel confident he’ll correct anything I might get wrong below, probably while demanding I buy him a drink and making fun of my shoes.

The essence of Jones’ take on the much-sought after bade of being considered proper Art (pronounced “Awt”, for those reading aloud at home) is it’s a lot of crap, a popularity contest each new medium is forced to enter in turn. He argues that as videogame creators (or television people, or comics people, or purveyors of any of the “new” media) we should take the stance of not wanting to join any club that would have us as a member, focusing instead of producing the best work we can and placing craftsmanship over the approval of old men in universities with embarrassing beards.

I agree except where I don’t, really. His points on Craft and Craftsmanship strike a chord with me, particularly as I discover more and more that as much as I love discussing design theories and practice, I’d much rather just do the job. As for not needing to be art… I don’t know. On one hand, I’m a big fan of not depending on someone else saying I’m something to consider myself that something, but on the other, I’m not on the front lines of (or even involved with) game academia like Brenda Brathwaite, Ian Schreiber, or Tracy Fullerton. I’ve never been in a position where my work and passions might be professionally marginalized because they weren’t considered a valid art form by the powers that be, never had to fight to prove that what I was doing mattered. It’d be nice if games didn’t need status to prove they were worth the sort of in-depth exploration those mentioned and others like them are committed to, but if a label is what it takes, then yeah, I think we need the label. At least for now. There’s also the part of me that doesn’t want to be told my medium and I can’t sit at the Adult’s Table, but that’s harder to back up with links to smart people, so.

At any rate, read Jones’ piece if you haven’t already. Aside from any arguments over artistic validity, his points on the importance of good craftsmanship above all else are well worth it.

*Friend James claims he chimed in as well, but as I can’t find his comments anywhere, let’s just assume he’s lying.