"Why Your Game Idea Sucks", an interview, and other publishing updates

Hallo again all — I am still behind on comment replies to the Mac Attack!, but am on a plane again tomorrow so wanted to post this quickly.

“Why Your Game Idea Sucks”, a short-order article I wrote for the Escapist a couple of weeks ago, popped up in my google alerts yesterday. By the time I got to it, it already had about 25 comments, and now it’s up to 87 or so. Comments range from “brilliant” and “the most truthful thing ever written about game development” to “how dare you” and “a pointless article”, so I suppose YMMV.

Comparison inevitably arises between something like this and Josh Olsen’s highly contentious “I Will Not Read Your Fucking Script”, and ensuing Harlan Ellison shenanigans, which I suppose is fair. Olsen’s piece went up coincidentally the same day I got the green light from the Escapist, which made me groan. But thankfully a lot of people are reading the intended humor in the title and finding that it’s less acerbic and hopefully a bit more helpful than Olsen’s was for many a “butthurt nerd”. In all seriousness, I had some anxiety with the piece, because I do think it’s a valid criticism that releasing something negative into the world doesn’t reap a good result — but the proof is in the pudding here that people really don’t listen when you tell them some things nicely.

But that’s enough about that. I have also gotten wind that “Darkest Amber” will be running in the next issue of Electric Velocipede, debuting at World Fantasy, which is conveniently near home this year. It is a cyberpunk smashfest and those of you strange enough to be familiar with the Black9 world may recognize some homages.

But that’s not all! Ethics and Game Design: Teaching Values Through Play, containing my super-long “Sideways into Truth: Kierkegaard, Philistines, and Denying Death Through Video Games” as well as a coveted intro written by Henry Jenkins will be hitting shelves digital and otherwise this coming February.

You should also check out “Of Shifting Skin and Certainty” by [info]justinhowe in the most recent Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and the very excellent “Between Two Treasons” by Michael DeLuca, aka [info]boonofdoom, a continuation of his terrific centaur stories.

Finally, [info]charlesatan was kind enough to request and then write up a very thoughtful interview with me on his Bibliophile Stalker blog. It is going into my profile as a general whowhat?! link. 🙂

Life, addictive game mechanics, and the truth hiding in Bejeweled

One of the occupational hazards of being a game designer is an obligation to play up-and-coming games, both to stay ahead of where the market is moving and to dig for signs of the One True Game Design, aka universal mechanics that move people. Lately there’s been a lot of buzz around Bejeweled Blitz, so I dug in for a sample today.

Blitz takes the familiar Bejeweled mechanic, itself going back along the Columns lineage in games, and makes you play it fast. They bolt on a bunch of social features — leaderboards and achievements — making it massively multiplayer in a lightweight but fun way. No surprise it’s sweeping through facebook, and a good time to be doing so.

Games like this, based on such simple and compelling mechanics, are on the one hand at the heart of game design and on the other inevitably raise the concept of “addicting” game mechanics. Because, man, that mechanic is addictive.

“Addictive” is a word we use in game development perhaps too lightly, though I would argue that there is no game designer who doesn’t treat that term with a huge dollop of trepidation. Executives love to hear the phrase “addictive gameplay”. Game designers, speaking for myself and those I know (whom I’m sure will correct me if they disagree), find the concept intriguing but simultaneously dangerous, even if we believe deep down that games don’t — even can’t — hurt people. And no one, from executives to game designers to behavioral psychologists, can give you an absolutely clear and quantifiable test for what “addictive” means when applied purely to a behavior or action. (As opposed to, say, a chemical. Chemical addiction is an equine of differing saturation.)

From a design analysis standpoint, Bejeweled‘s addicting elements are simple but profound:
1. The game is simple to understand; two clicks and you’re in.
2. The game presents a clear problem with a clear solution (make rows of 3+ jewels).
3. The results of action frequently create cascading consequences.
3a. These cascading consequences have an element of randomness / unpredictability / intermittent reward.

There are further sub-elements, such as the vivid feedback (attractive effects and sound), persistent environment (it hits on this “let me poke this thing and see what happens” basic human drive) — but those are the topline elements.

The simplicity of the game reduces the consequence of failure and the speed of re-entry. The clarity of the problem and solution fires our cognitive circuits without requiring the engagement of messier things like grey area judgment, ethics, social repercussion, or any of the myriad other complex elements we have to deal with in the reality of our daily lives. The reward system and its cascading consequences ensure that we achieve a variable but deeply satisfying result from our simple, clear action.

So I get why it’s addictive. I play it, I feel the cognitive engine revv up, the little five year old in the back of my brain goes “Ooooh.” I understand that I want to keep playing, and when this reaction fires in me my ethical brain also kicks in and goes, “hmm, what are other people experiencing when they play this, and what responsibility ensues?”

Then I had a little epiphany, one of those simple ones that feels very important. I realized that what pulls me away from playing Bejeweled continuously is that I actually want to perform the complex behavior I’m supposed to be performing instead (in this case, moving onto another task at work).

Addiction is not about what you DO, but what you DON’T DO because of the replacement of the addictive behavior.

The reason why what defines addiction for one person may not define addiction for another person, even given quantified equal stretches of time action or consumption, is because addiction is not about the action, but about the individual person.

This is why merely resisting addiction of any kind is not enough. This is why — although some activities are more broadly compelling than others — virtually any activity can become an addiction. What addictive behavior does is reveal underlying anxiety (and often depression, which itself is nebulous) and lack of desire to perform the things we’re “supposed to” be doing.

One of the questions that I’ve asked before has to do with that “supposed to”. It is a deeply existential and social question: to what extent are we obligated as individual human beings to fulfill the expectations of our peers, when they run counter to our individual desires? Is the 7-11 gamer more happy in his successful guildleader existence than in his blue-collar job, and if so, is it wrong, and who is allowed to make that judgment for him?

These are deep human questions that are difficult to answer. But the game, as always, is a mirror. It does not create in us behaviors that we would never have otherwise; it reflects back to us what is lurking beneath the grind of our everyday existence.

The solution is not to break the mirror, but to resist the urge to look away from what it shows us.

Truly compassionate addiction counselors understand this: that resolving an addictive behavior (which cannot be done, by the way, until the person who has the behavior acknowledges it and decides that THEY want to change their behavior) is more than causing the behavior itself to cease. It means addressing the lack of meaning in a person’s life that leads them to pursue a simpler activity that may make them temporarily happy but not happy in the grand scheme of their life. (And the critical definition there is that only the individual in question can seek and define their state of relative happiness. It cannot be determined for them, not by family or anyone else. I’ve known people who think of themselves as depressed when really their only major source of unhappiness is that their families don’t like or accept what makes them happy.)

Some of this has a personal note, I should acknowledge. I’ve had a couple of moments wherein I thought I was addicted to one game or another. In one case, I stayed home sick from school to play a game all day. Lame, I know. (I was otherwise a pretty good student; the notion of skipping class was a big deal.) It had nothing to do with the game itself, but the fact that I was sixteen and (as I perceived it) my life sucked, and the game presented me with power and simple solutions to simple problems that were a relief from the complex crappy things that existed in my reality. From here, thoroughly not addicted, I can look back on that time in my life and say, you know, things sucked, and I completely understand why I would have rather played that game than deal with reality. When I stopped playing it, it wasn’t because the game changed, but because my circumstances did, and I no longer felt the need to disengage from meat life. And to this day the game evokes feelings of comfort, not danger, when I play it.

The reason why we, as game consumers and game creators, need to understand this, is because for many the solution is to break the mirror rather than understanding it. The latter is certainly more difficult. But we need to understand ourselves and our drives in as deep and thoughtful a way as possible not merely for our own individual benefit, but to solve the greatest problems that existence presents: the questions of why we live, and how we live. We need to understand what makes us human, and part of that is recognizing the value in the tools and art that we create to reflect ourselves back to us in the quest for that understanding. And what is so fascinating about these pieces
of art is their universality — that you don’t need to consciously think about any of this to feel why Bejeweled pulls you. Our human nature is there whether we acknowledge it or not, and the rabbit hole runs deep and dark. There is a greater cause beyond mirror-breaking, more good that we can do through understanding and compassion, in fields where those who do play games more often than they should most often have to deal with professionals who have no understanding of what those games mean, or their genuine value, even to the addicted, after addiction.

What do you study?

I went out for lunch yesterday and came back with a large skull that tested the (thus far) good-natured tolerance of my new coworkers. It’s a sculpted replica from a Phorusrhacos, a five-foot-tall mid-Miocene flightless raptor ([info]skkyechan, are they technically raptors?) from Patagonia. When I saw it in the window I thought it might have been from an argentavis and initially had this falsely confirmed, but all that really mattered was that it’s a giant carnivorous bird skull and I had to have it.

It came from The Bone Room, which is dangerously close to my new office and therefore at high risk of taking all of my moneys. The shopkeeper said she could get me a confuciusornis by special order. And they have tons of bugs. And a bumper sticker reading “Australopithecus ends in ‘US’!”

Flighted ancestor or not, it’s probably the closest I’m going to get to a gryphon anatomical reference without commissioning something unnatural. There don’t seem to be commonly available casts of argentavis parts, but if there were, they’d probably look more vulture-like than I’d like anyway. (But they’d be damn cool.)

The store likely exists because of our proximity to Berkeley’s Museum of Paleontology and associated research departments, so the fact that I was asked “what do you study?” was perfectly reasonable. But apparently I had the wrong answer, because I was asked twice by the same person in the course of my information gathering on how accurate this stuff was and, uh, whether I could get a confuciusornis. And this after I’d explained that I work up the street at a game design company. I even said “video game design”, which probably still didn’t compute. Yes, sorry, I am a non-scholar, a dirty impostor, in your shop and asking entirely nerdy questions about your bones. But she did sell me the skull anyway. And then asked what I studied again.

The appropriate response, which (in my exuberance over the phorusrhacos) I missed, was: I’m a game designer. I study everything.

Hearts and such

Valentine’s Day dinner at home: steaks broiled with garlic and pepper, twice-baked potatoes with horseradish cheddar and scallions, spinach sauteed with shallots and garlic. And I know it’s good because I set off all three smoke detectors with the steaks. Dessert was supposed to be raspberry lemon souffles, but I can’t find the beaters for my mixer in our sea of boxes, so they’re postponed.

We are established up north, having a couch and as of today a Playstation 3. Of the last 14 days officially in the new place (and job) I’ve spent five down in Burbank — half of each week. So all email and online things are a little disjointed, though we do have internet at home now, so should be catching back up s00n.

Hope that you all have a Happy Valentine’s Day, whether with one special person or simply the bodacious Obama-love of all righteous mankind. Or both.

Hearts and such

Valentine’s Day dinner at home: steaks broiled with garlic and pepper, twice-baked potatoes with horseradish cheddar and scallions, spinach sauteed with shallots and garlic. And I know it’s good because I set off all three smoke detectors with the steaks. Dessert was supposed to be raspberry lemon souffles, but I can’t find the beaters for my mixer in our sea of boxes, so they’re postponed.

We are established up north, having a couch and as of today a Playstation 3. Of the last 14 days officially in the new place (and job) I’ve spent five down in Burbank — half of each week. So all email and online things are a little disjointed, though we do have internet at home now, so should be catching back up s00n.

Hope that you all have a Happy Valentine’s Day, whether with one special person or simply the bodacious Obama-love of all righteous mankind. Or both.

Determined to foment a rebellion 2008-06-17 18:39:22

So, I am sitting here in my silk kimono robe (don’t get too excited, I’m also wearing a t-shirt and jeans) and my slippers and I’m feeling very writerly. It’s a nice feeling considering that over the past few days I’ve been going through one of those crises of conscience about what constitutes “important” writing (thanks, Time book). But now I have to go buy groceries. It’s a glamorous existence.

Sometimes, though, there is praise. The writing life is enough of a persistent beatdown that I am always shocked when this happens.

First, Kieron Gillen enjoyed “Slave to the Beat”, which went up a week ago and I kind of forgot to tell you folks about (oops):

Erin Hoffman writes about Audition Online for the Escapist. I’ve played a little of this MMO rhythm action game, and went away a tad depressed, but Erin goes completely native in an entertaining fashion. I’m probably alone in my wish for an actual game-of-the-film Audition though, in a kirri-kirri-kirri kind of way.

Kieron recently made yet another top-game-journalists list; he’s certainly one of the better guys working in the field, so anything from him feels like high praise while I trudge along as a sort of confused non-game-journalist.

And Alvaro Zinos-Amaro Reviews issue #27 of Lone Star Stories at TheFix, including “Whatever Shall Grow There, Dear”:

Annamarie’s viewpoint is expertly developed. The way she catches fragments of conversation and meaning from her parent’s arguments but is completely sensitive to the underlying emotional reality of which those arguments are symptomatic rings true. There are numerous images that are beautiful without being ornate, touching and innocent without being sentimental (“Pale late afternoon sunlight filtered through the gauzy white curtains in the living room and made the oiled oak floors glow burnt orange.”) They place us in Annamarie’s world and convey a sense of ethical sensitivity, an almost ennobling naivete, by acting as metaphors for her thoughts and emotions.

The storytelling technique is deceptively simple, and the characters all fully realized. Hoffman centers the tale around Annamarie’s coming-of-age, to great effect, and delivers a knockout ending that bears the bountiful fruits of transformation.

As mentioned when I announced the sale, it’s a special story and a difficult one for me, so it’s extremely gratifying to see someone “get” it, reviewer or otherwise. I would say there’s even a difference between “praise” and when someone “gets” your writing — they extrapolate meaning from the original work that was there in your heart but not obviously stated on the page, painting a picture that resonates with the emotional framework of the story’s origin. It’s a feeling of kinship, and it’s at the core of why I send this stuff out, to test for those precious connections between experiences and minds. Otherwise it could all just stay in the trunk; it’s dangerous, after all, to dissect a part of yourself and spin it into something that you invite people to poke with sticks. But I’m glad this one got out.

Alvaro’s review is worth note because he actually covered the poetry in the issue, too — something that I wish more reviewers would do on The Fix and in spec-fic reviews in general. The poetry in that issue was terrific and well deserving of contemplation and highlight.

Okay, groceries now.

A small bouquet of updates

Of the publishing variety. “Whatever Shall Grow There, Dear” is now live in the current issue of Lone Star Stories, along with other excellent fiction and poetry that you should imbibe immediately. Take a look at [info]sovay‘s “Firework-Makers”, and the poems of [info]papersky and [info]seajules. Everyone seems to be on LJ these days. 😉

While you’re at it, head over to Schezerezade’s Bequest, the online edition of Cabinet des Fees, and check out [info]sovay‘s lovely “Bonny Fisher Boy”. And before you conclude that I am stalking [info]sovay, I say this as segue to the update that SB has recently accepted my poem “The Fall of Fairy Castle” for their September issue.

When you’re done doing that, you should hie yourself out and purchase a copy of the first issue of Tales of Moreauvia, containing as it does [info]jsridler‘s very excellent “Engine of Desolation”, as well as a story by the habitually skillful and entertaining Rita Oakes. Can’t lose.

Last but certainly not least, feast your eyes upon the snazzy page that is Beneath Ceaseless Skies, which will be debuting this Fall under the steady hand of Scott H. Andrews.

Being that I’ve been in Albany and New York City in the last week, I was in range of the Kindle’s Whispernet, and boy did I use it. The Kindle can in fact be used to surf the web and check email, but what got me in trouble was the ease with which I could download free book samples. I’ve also downloaded books from Project Gutenberg and piped them onto the Kindle; I have not yet attempted [info]boonofdoom‘s clever notion of reading slush on it, but plan to soon. It has already caused me to purchase three books I would not have otherwise, and sampled over a dozen I likely would not have picked up anytime soon. I suppose I should be lucky I was only temporarily exposed to Whispernet. In preliminary conclusion, the Kindle is not quite the Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer, but it is clearly Australopithecus to that line, and I remain both impressed and frightened.