Apr 082011

I’ve found myself relaying to students recently, a story of my experience at GDC this last year. I wound up at the Scandinavian Indie Games Party watching and playing the 2008 Vertical Slice of the Xbox 360 Game Limbo. It was actually one of my primary reasons for going to this gathering. I was interested in learning more about the tools and production practices that resulted in Limbo. What I got instead was a really valuable and heartening experience of someone else’s work-in-progress. [I also had the chance to reset the game several times as it sort of hangs after you beat the game. Leave it to the anthropologist to observe Arnt reset it once and then step in to fill the role so others can continue to play.]

Its hard to convey to someone how much one can treasure those creative/intellectual endeavors that one undertakes. Books, essays, games, movies, music, etc can each fall into these categories. When we set them in front of others, we place those stories on display in a very vulnerable way. Its made even worse by the fact that we often only see the faults in these artefacts. As a player moves through a level, all we can see is the hiccups and jumps and jerks and flaws in the system. I find it almost humiliating and yet it is a necessary part of the creative process. We learn and improve based on those resulting critiques and conversations.

[As an aside, perhaps this is my deepest critique of the double-blind peer-review process. Wouldn’t it be more constructive to read a fellow person’s work with them sitting there (or nearby) after which you can have a conversation about the work. Much more meaningful and connected that what most peer-review looks like now.]

What I had an opportunity to do was to see a game, which despite some linger critiques, I quite enjoyed playing. Limbo’s aesthetic and production quality are stunning. I’ve been deeply curious about its development, their production, tools, and numerous aspects surrounding the game. What I was able to do, was to see the flaws in something that were otherwise invisible. The 2008 vertical slice of Limbo made possible the game released in 2010.

Now recently, I came upon a video of Jonathan Blow talking about the Xbox 360 Game Braid. The discussion and dissection of his design process is excellent, but it’s the first few minutes of the talk that got me. It’s his first playable version of his game, created in “7-8” days and how it encapsulated the design of what became Braid. He showed Braid to several of his close friends and we’re not sure what happened after that point, except for this line:

“The Only Difference Between that and the Shipped Game is Three Years of Development” – Jonathan Blow

But this is precisely it right? It speaks directly to the “90-10” rule. The idea that the “last 10%” is really 90%. While the numbers might not be quite that skewed, the idea is. It’s also what makes Chris Hecker’s plea all the more heartfelt I think.

One really needs a commitment and time to bring a game to where it should be or ought to be to “explore fully” a particular mechanic. But you also need to finish it. So I ‚ô• the vertical slice, precisely because it’s not “the game,” it’s a moment in time where a developer has really found the game and now has some arduous task ahead of them trying to really coax that game out of the hitchy-glitchy thing that was the vertical slice. But one really does develop a commitment to that.

I ‚ô• vertical slices.

But also know when to break up with your vertical slice. ūüėČ

Apr 072011

[Note: For those of you getting this link because of your “(baby)alexis” notifications, I couldn’t help not including you. :)] Osy (“Osy Osmosis”), a game cooperatively developed by myself and members of a research team at the University of Georgia hit the App Store late last night. Osy’s development has spanned just about two years now, though actual development time was about three months to vertical slice, which was the deployed widely for preliminary testing throughout schools in Georgia. It is this version of the game featured in the documentary piece found on the Osy website. Little happened with the game after that point until April of 2010, when the UGA OVPR provided a VentureLab seed grant for our freshly created company IS3D, LLC. A portion of this money was used to port Osy to iOS and move the game into full production. It paid for bringing in wonderful folks like Ben Throop in to tell us what we’re doing right and wrong.

What makes Osy special, for me, is that it is my stab at thinking about making games… that just happen to contain concepts that educators are interested in teaching to students. I often say very deliberately that Osy is not “edutainment.” Put more academically, the procedural rhetoric of Osy is the story of osmosis. Too often, educational games ignore the procedural rhetoric and only thinly layer educational images/concepts on top of game mechanics that have nothing to do with the message they hope to deliver. In far too many cases it is actually worse, “gamelike” visuals are layered on top of quiz/test systems and it is referred to as a “game.” In part, this is because testing/quizzing is the primary procedural rhetoric (or game mechanic) of schools. I recall one day during the design of Osy where I said something to the effect, “If you put a quiz in my game, I’m done with it.” This is an approach, that I think is conscientious of the kinds of critiques that some are leveling at the Game-ification of Education.

I’ve also been somewhat worried about many people researching games and education becoming too focused on only the importation of off-the-shelf standard game industry games into the classroom. Isn’t that the equivalent of giving up the ghost? Why not create high quality games with education sitting in the back of your head? Clearly, game developers draw on scientific concepts for the systems within games (physics, evolution, …) though it comes secondary to the overall game. Why not have it as an equal on the field of idea-battles that occur during the development of a game? That I want a player to understand/feel/know X where X includes some scientific knowledge becomes part of the design process.

Go Osy go!

Sep 242010

Alright… Zero¬†Punctuation is one of my guilty little pleasures and I’ve been a member of the Videogame Voters (“Grassroots”) Network since I first heard about it in 2007. I think whole-heartedly that games are art (so much so that I no longer even pay attention to the argument because it has¬†descended¬†into absurdity) and as such should be protected under the first¬†amendment. I agree wholeheartedly with what Yahtzee is saying, that indeed the anti-fun-brigade is throwing poop at videogames. But, unfortunately, and I’ve written about this and talked about it at conferences before. As the game industry has¬†constructed¬†itself thus far, it isn’t the same as books, film, television, radio, newspapers, etc. That isn’t to say games don’t have that potential, but that the game industry consistently shoots itself in the foot making games look more like “commercial speech” (speech for profit) over critical social and political commentary, which is what the whole first amendment is about.

I’m not even saying that games don’t do this already. Clearly, one need to only look at a game studio like Molleindustria or Persuasive Games or Brenda Brathwaite‘s installation games like Train and Siochan Leat to see the truth of this. But, this is not what the game industry¬†predominately¬†produces and as such is not how it is¬†perceived¬†by the general public. Now, it is true that major media does not predominantly produce this either, but it is percieved to by the “Lay Man” as Yahtzee calls them.

The trouble is this. I can create film, books, television, radio, newsletters, etc, critical of social or political issues and release that information to the broader public. Local movie theaters, public television (which, yes, is on the decline), public radio (which, yes is on the decline), printing presses, and numerous other venues await me to speak upon. In games, the situation is quite different. I can release my game online, on the Internet. These are not the games that legislation is attacking. It is attacking major videogame manufacturers, who I cannot publish with. If game companies were more open about their development tools and communities (which Microsoft has attempted to be, and even Apple has pushed this direction as well, although that is arguable until recent App Store changes), then I think the argument would hold, that mainstream videogames are indeed speech, and as such should be protected.

But I can’t speak on my Wii. I can’t speak on my DS, my PS3, my PSP, or even my bloody NES. It is largely a broadcast medium; a commercial medium. So while I deeply and firmly believe that games should be protected and current efforts, like those in California, are unconstitutional, the game industry is its own worst enemy in this respect with its tight control over content.

Of course, one might argue that the tight control is necessary for the functioning of the ESA/ESRB’s ratings system. True. But the foundational software development platforms need not be as tightly controlled. Major distribution channels can be governed, much like Apple’s much lamented, “walled garden,” which the videogame industry invented. At the same time, as someone who speaks, I can release my source-code to the world and anyone (with requisite knowledge) could play the game. There is a “public access” path to the mainstream. Interestingly enough, even though circumvention of an “mobile phone’s” copy protection methods to install unauthorized software is now legal despite the DMCA, the videogame industry has managed to exempt itself from this. The R4 and other mod-chips that can be used for copyright violation can also be used to create unauthorized games.

Long term, it is about raising awareness that games are bigger than Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo, and now Apple. Games are a medium for speech and rhetoric. At the same time the game industry must also perhaps begin making changes that speak towards the importance of the medium rather than strictly bottom lines.

Jan 132009

I have been thinking a great deal lately about what the rise of digital distribution means for the videogame industry. I have also been thinking about what it means, culturally, for videogamers. It is something I’ve been thinking about for a long time, because I’ve heard many game developers talk about how much videogame rentals and videogame resale hurts developers by depriving them of much more frequently needed funds.

I have also been thinking about my childhood Continue reading »

Dec 232008

The unfortunate thing about my first semester teaching was that I felt as if I was never going to come up for air. The fortunate thing about that process is that it means I’ve been sitting on a pile of thoughts on a variety of videogame development and game industry issues that I’ve been following for quite a while now. Thus, the next several posts are ones which have remained, have persevered, as tabs in Firefox for nearly two months.

The first series of tabs are perhaps critically linked to the second post I’ll be making, but fundamentally about different issues. In my dissertation, especially in the “MOD(ify)-ing Game Development Worlds” sections I talked about some of the critical issues facing the videogame industry. I also talk specifically about how those practices which are hurting the videogame industry are actually many of the practices which are being imported into other “industries,” but most directly in other New Media industries. Those two particular chapters are titled:

  • “Game Development Practice: A Postmortem”
  • “The Game Industry Galaxy: A Postmortem”

Though I tease the Phil Harrison of 2007s Game Developers Conference and his “Game 3.0” slide from the Sony keynote, recent news reports have me wondering if he was really commited to the concept and his job at Atari has created an opportunity for him to pursue Game 3.0. The other possibility is that his experiences at Atari thus far have convinced him that Game 3.0 as the industry is currently structured will never be the lively world of Web 2.0 they wish it to be.

Continue reading »

Dec 212008

Several folks from the Grady College at UGA pulled together a fantastic assortment of student work Thursday of this last week called “Gradyfest.” I went in with very little in the way of expectations, but I was simply blown away. Not only was I blown away, I found myself thoroughly enjoying the evening. What perhaps impressed me the most was just how indicative many of the Grady creations were so indicative of Fan/Remix Culture in ways that are simply indescribable. One creation in particular caught my eye and ear. I cannot for the life of me remember the title of it, though the production “company” “Level 84” certainly sticks in my head considering something about 8 and 4 sticks out at me from writing my dissertation, or perhaps it was playing a game released in 1985 in the United States on a little grey box. Continue reading »

Nov 142008

After the break you can read the text of an email that was sent out to Clinton Lowe and the attendees of our first Athens GGDA/IGDA meeting. Overall the event was very successful. I think we came away with a core group of people interested in making the chapter a success. I think the chapter itself will also be an excellent starting point for independent game development efforts in the Athens area. GameJam time!

Continue reading »