costik's blog

"Unsocial Social Games"

Gamasutra has just posted an article I wrote on the social nature, or lack thereof, of "social" games.

"Veteran game designer Greg Costikyan unpacks whether social games are truly social or they are not -- and having dissected the form, then leaps in with some suggestions on how to make the games more rewarding for players and developers."

Retro Games Destroy New York

Via Steve Meretzky.

Paradox Week

PC gaming is dead, saith the pundits. Halo made FPS work on consoles, so one PC genre down; RTS titles no longer repay console levels of investment, so goodbye to Stainless Steel Studios and Big Huge Games and Ensemble. Only MMOs survive, and they're moving to free-to-play.

But wait; only on rare occasions did PC games reach console levels of sales. For many years, the two markets were entirely separate -- console games sold through toy stores, PC games through computer stores -- with different developers and different media. Maybe it's not that PC gaming is dead, but that the merger of console and PC gaming that occurred in the 90s with the CD-ROM revolution is becoming a divorce?

Paradox is a company that, supposedly, should be dead. They're a Swedish developer of deep, complicated grand strategy games like Europa Universalis and Victoria -- games that do require you to RTFM, games with a deep connection to history, games that challenge the intellect rather than fine motor skills. Their games are neither casual -- they are far too challenging and complex for that -- nor "hardcore," if hardcore means requiring l33t shooter sk1llz. Their games are of the type that Johnny Wilson would once have given lengthy ink in the lost, lamented Computer Gaming World, games that demonstrate that digital games need not be about joysticks.

But Paradox is, today, more than just a PC game developer; it has leveraged a passionate following to become a publisher and distributor of PC games, even as the conventional publishers have abandoned the platform. Through Gamer's Gate, they offer more than 2000 titles, many of them 'indie' in nature and many of the old PC gaming mould. Unlike Valve, they do not require you to install a piece of software that consumes system resources permanently and downloads crap you don't want in the background. While Steam still generates more unit sales for many developers, Gamer's Gate has become a substantial revenue source for many -- and is more open to indies.

In addition, they publish many independently developed PC games, providing both distribution as well as funding. Since "PC games are dead," distribution is largely digital, either through their own portal or others, though you may find the occasional SKU in a brick-and-mortar store.

This week, we will be featuring games recently published by Paradox from independent developers -- games that might not be considered sufficiently 'indie' by some, but which are certainly not funded by major publishers, developed by in-house studios, or are confined to the handful of genres the publishers still consider not-dead.

Evidently, PC gaming isn't dead; it's just pining for the fjords.

Facebook & HTML 5

Cory Ondrejka seems hot on using HTML 5 for Facebook games -- but oddly, in order to get a piece of mobile revenues, I guess on the theory that Apple will never let Flash on iOS, so Facebook games are only going to play on iOS devices if they're based on a different technology.

I'm all for pushing HTML5, but this strikes me as a really weird rationale; Apple devices have, and will continue to have, a relatively small share of the smartphone market, and likely the emerging tablet market, too (notwithstanding Nokia's Win7 idiocy). To push HTML5 as a means of getting revenue from <20% of mobile users is silly.

The reason to push HTML5 is that Flash is leaky and slow, and you can actually get better performance in a standards-compliant way with HTML5. Think of it this way; if Web standards had supported an animation canvas and two-way communication between client and server from the inception, Flash would never have existed. With its large installed userbase, and large number of developers, it's not going to go away quickly, but its raison d'etre is now gone.

Not that I would advise embarking on HTML5 development right away; the only browsers that are HTML5-compliant so far are Chrome, Mozilla 4.0 beta, and IE9, which is now in "release candidate" status, but not officially out. So a relatively small proportion of the audience can use HTML5 apps yet.

Still, if a major player like Facebook throws its weight behind HTML5, the transition will occur more quickly.

Incidentally, Mozilla has announced the winners of its HTML5 game competition. Not a lot of gems here from a gameplay perspective, but pretty good as a demonstration of what the technology can do.


So I'm leaving tomorrow evening for Copenhagen, where I'll be providing the keynote speech for the Nordic Game Jam and judging it. From there, I'll be going to Kiev to confer with the developers of a game I'm working on, and won't be back for ten days.

I'll be taking my netbook with me, and expect to be able to post from time to time while I'm away, but it's possible reviews won't be as timely as they usually are.

Should be interesting, anyway.

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Real Virtuality @ American Museum of the Moving Image

Karen and I, along with daughters Simona and Betsy, and Betsy's b/f Brett, went to the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens today to take in their exhibit on Real Virtuality, which runs through June 12th.

The proximate cause of our visit was to see The Night Journey, the game (if it be such) on which our friend Tracy Fullerton is collaborating with renowned video artist Bill Viola, and of course to see Tracy, in town for the opening.

The Night Journey runs on a PC, but is played with a controller; right stick controls viewpoint, left controls motion, and "X" (it's a PS2 controller) allows you to "reflect" -- not as in "invert the imagery," but as in "ponder." The imagery is a distorted and grainy greyscale landscape, and at various points are locations where, if you reflect, the imagery shifts to display some remembrance, distortion, or visual related to what you see in the main view. As you find reflection points and 'score' them (there is no numerical score), you can move faster, and learn to fly; in other words, you gain capabilities in the 'game' by locating important points within it. Over time, you may traverse three environments (forest, desert, and ocean), and some reflections produce brief, full-color video clips which you 'collect,' with the ability to view all later in the game. It is also possible to 'die,' represented by darkness closing in, which requires you to restart.

There is not, to be sure, anything like a win condition, or even a "quantified outcome" in Salen & Zimmerman's sense; hence, it's hard to categorize this as a game. It is intended to be a form of interactive video art, and both the nature sounds encountered during play and the grainy but affective imagery reinforces the sense of interacting with a piece of art. (There's also a passage in which people whisper to you, but at the museum, with the noises made by others, this was difficult to discern.) And given that most "video art" is wholly linear, the interactive nature of the product, and its borrowings from game design in terms of a sense of progression, make it interesting. For me, the glacial pace, and the apparent attempt at Zen-like serenity and acceptance mostly made me twitch and want to play something violent, but that probably says more about my cynical and depressive nature than anything about any lack in the work itself.

Other works on display include:

Realtime Unreal from Workspace Unlimited, an interesting work in which one person at a time enters a marked-off space in front of a projection screen. On the screen is projected a 3D digital environment not dissimilar to (but different from) the environment of the museum itself; by physically moving about the space, the person interacting with it changes the viewpoint displayed on the screen, creating a sense of being present in a 3D space that is partly real and partly virtual. 3D glasses (provided by the museum) are needed to experience it.

Into the Forest, from The OpenEnded Group appears at first glance to be an oddly-distorted 3D movie (glasses required) looking a lot like a moving-picture version of a lenticular, in which humanoid shapes move through a forested landscape. It is not, however, a movie as such; rather, some 400 clips are combined and displayed on the circular screen according to some algorithmic scheme. Accompanying text says that one person standing under a spotlight has his or her image captured at times and inserted in the scene, but if this is true, I was unable to discern any evidence of it in practice.

Augmented Sculpture, from Pablo Valbuena, is a stark white model of a cityscape onto which light -- sometimes lines or polygons, sometimes spots that cause shadows in the planes of the cityscale -- is projected. Although the physical object of the cityscape is unchanging, the changing nature of the projected light creates a sensation of motion and change.

RMB City, from Cao Fei, is actually a set of connected works. One is an area of Second Life which she purchased and has built up as a work of interactive art, and which may be explored by the audience in a large projection screen, with the motion of a character controlled by a Wiimote. Another is a sort of surfing game, with an actual surfboard controller, in which text messages from the artist appear during play; the actual game itself is dull, though the imagery out of the norm. Three smaller screens display visual loops, one of them an interview with the artist performed in the Second Life environment itself.

Finally, Cathedral from Marco Brambilla is a wholly non-interactive work of video art displayed on a large screen, consisting of video shot by the artist at the Toronto Eaton Centre megamall, then edited and rotoscoped by him into a kaleidoscope-like display.

If you are or plan to be in the area during the exhibit's run, it's worth checking out, at least partly to see how the video art community is responding to concepts of interaction fostered by the videogame revolution.

Babycastles Exhibit on Resource Management Games

free / 7PM - 1AM / all ages / donations welcome


----| performances by nonhorse & jesse hlebo & hisham a. bharoocha & rob aa lowe |---------
----| talks by jesse fuchs & simon ferrari |------

CREDIT DUE: Choices, Payoffs, & Loops
curated by Jesse Fuchs & Simon Ferrari

Babycastles Arcade & Showpaper 42nd Street Gallery
217 East 42nd Street
4/5/6/7 to Grand Central

Abusive Games Julefrokost @ BabyCastles 12/23

On December 23rd, Babycastles and the Copenhagen Game Collective will be hosting a night of abusive games, strong Scandinavian drinks, and gaming weirdness.

Among other things, I will be talking there about Violence.

Salman Rushdie on Videogames and Storytelling

It's here. I could mention Borges in this context, but I'd sound like a pretentious motherfucker, whereas Rushdie is entitled.

2010 IGF @ Babycastles

From November 18th through the 24th, Babycastles will be featuring games from the 2010 IGF. More below the fold.

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