costik's blog

Sorry for the Outage

...yesterday, and intermittently on Tuesday. A transformer at our hosting service, Galaxyvisions, blew up, and they've been having trouble keeping things online. Per their site, they now have an emergency generator working, so the problem is solved at least for the immediate future.

The Bones: Us and Our Dice

So after I posted the text to my talk on randomness at least year's Austin GDC, I got email from Will Hindmarch asking if he could publish it in a book he was working on, for fi'ty bux. I figured, what the hell, why not. Not that the money was meaningful; this is the life of a writer in the 21st century, we get paid the same word rate John Campbell offered in 1948, despite 20-fold inflation since then. And I figured, also, this was some dumbass vanity hobby publication, totally meaningless, but I'll cash the check.

But I got the finished book in the mail yesterday, and swelp me for a caitiff, but it's actually pretty copacetic.

The Bones is a 215 trade paperback from Gameplaywright Press, and is an anthology of articles and essays on the subject of dice and randomness, their game utility, the superstitions players create about them, their emotional impact in play and, in many cases, "what dice mean to me." Writers include Ken Hite, Matt Forbeck, Pat Harrigan, John Kovalic, James Lowder, Jared Sorensen, and Wil Wheaton. Some of these pieces are almost scholarly, with a scattering of winceable errors (Henry VII, not VIII, wagered for the Jesus Bells, Ken). On the whole, it's fun, readable, and would be a good addition to almost any gamer's library. And I say this without any ulterior motive, since I was paid flat fee, and earn no royalties from your purchase.

More here.

Google Now Officially Evil

Google invests >$100m in Zynga

The Digital Man: Open Source Game Contest

samuel writes:

    "I've been running an open source gaming competition, called The Digital Man, and am in the final round of voting. I'd like to get more votes out for the games, as it appears to have slowly degenerated into a popularity contest, rather than a quality content contest."

If you'd like to check out the contest entrants and cast your vote, look here.

When Facebook Games Go Bad

Yeah, I got some "experiences" to tell about... More below the fold.

Game Play: A Celebration of Video Game Performance Art

The Brick Theater in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, is running a set of cool events between July 9th and 25th.

Among these are: Grand Theft Ovid, which appears to be realtime machinima presenting tales from Metamorphoses. (By realtime, I mean that characters are puppeted in realtime by players, rather than prerecorded as in typical machinima.)

Modal Kombat, which appears to involve electric guitars (real ones, not plastic controllers from Guitar Hero) controlling characters in non-music-themed videogames.

Theater of the Arcade: Five Classic Videogames Adapted for the Stage, nuff said.

Lots more, but these struck me as the most interesting.

Casual Hardcore

I have an article about casual games up on the Escapist today. The basic argument is that casual gamers are really, when you come down to it, hardcore -- at least the ones who will actually pay.

Social Network Games: ARPU over Design

This started as a comment on this post on Farmville, but I realized I needed to expand it and expose it more.

No professional ever ignores money. The very definition of "professional" is that you do it for money. I have at time done non-commercial work, either for my own amusement or at the request of friends, but the vast bulk of my design work is indeed aimed at earning me some money. There's no question, however, that I would have earned a great deal more money over my lifetime by choosing a career path other than "game designer." This is also true of every other game designer I know. In other words: the pursuit of money is certainly part of what we do, but it is not everything that we do.

To be an artist is to pursue an aesthetic vision. To be a professional artist, you must balance the two; that is, you must work for a market, whether that be gallery owners, patrons, social network users, or some other source of income; yet you must always keep the aesthetic characteristics of the work uppermost in your mind, and at times you may feel it necessary to make decisions that ameliorate the marketability of your work for the sake of the work itself. This is a contradiction to some degree, but the two objectives -- aesthetics and money -- are not opposites; they are orthogonal to each other. As a professional artist, you seek to do work that occupies the upper quadrant: both aesthetically pleasing and monetarily rewarding.

The problem with social network games -- rather, one of the problems with social network games -- is that they give the suits, if you will, the whip hand. Have a design idea? Try it out! If the metrics say it increases our ARPU, then it's good! Keep it! If not, kill it. (ARPU is "average revenue per user", a telephone-industry term that's been creeping into the discussion of online games recently.)

In other words:

  1. Social network games produce easily trackable metrics.
  2. It is thus possible to expose a portion of your audience to a new feature and determine, with no possibility of argument, whether or not that new feature increases your revenues or not.
  3. It is, however, impossible to use the same metrics to determine whether or not, say, your players now feel they are having more or less fun, or whether they feel they are having a more or less emotionally impactful experience, or, indeed, to track any aesthetically meaningful criteria.
  4. Consequently, the design of social network games is driven entirely by business rather than aesthetic criteria.

From the perspective of, say, an aggressive Internet entrepreneur, this is heaven; you don't have to cater to those annoying game design dweebs and their abstruse theories, you just try shit out and if it works you keep it.

From the perspective of those of us who love games, however, this is far from ideal; it means that development is not driven by "what makes for a good game" but "what makes for increased ARPU", which are not by any means the same thing.

I will mention that I have designed one released social network game, provided a preliminary design for a second that may or may not every see the light of day, and am in fact working on a third at present, which again may or may not see the light of day. I am not arguing that the nature of social network games is problematic because I utterly despair of the form; indeed every form of business has its problems and constraints. But there are aspects of the business I find troubling.

Farmville: A Sociopathic Game?

That's A. J. Patrick Liszkiewicz's description of Farmville in a screed taking the game to task. It's worth a read, albeit his claim that Farmville does not meet Callois's definition of "the game" is highly debatable.

Things are actually, however, worse than Liszkiewicz realizes; social games are in fact refined, user-tested mechanisms for extracting money from players for nothing. The combination of SQL-derived metrics over a large player-base and the ability to test minor variations in gameplay quickly make these games examples not of the ars ludorum, but of financial engineering.

(I'm working on another social network game at the moment, btw.)

Testing in Brooklyn

I took the subway out to McCarren Park in Brooklyn today to help test a game Eric Zimmerman is designing for the Come out and Play Festival. The game involved three teams of people wandering a maze, some of them with "walls" they could use to block off doorways, and others trying to find and tag others in the maze. Since this was a test, the walls of the maze were represented by bamboo sticks laid on the ground of the park, and the portable "walls" by more bamboo sticks -- you'd find a doorway you wanted to block and plant your stick in the ground, "no pasaran"-style.

Naturally, we had to try to pretend that we couldn't see through the "walls," so were wandering around keeping our heads down and looking at the ground and trying to ignore our peripheral vision.

While we were doing this -- 8 men and 1 woman either of or approaching middle age -- a young woman comes up and starts filming us. Eric asks what she's doing, and she says, "I'm a dance student, and I'm interested in how you are moving."

I'm sure it looked odd, but this struck me as very Williamsburg.

(Well, technically we were in Greenpoint, but close enough.)

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