Freeplay, Invisible Buttons, Street Play, Blind Spiders, and Books

On the weekend I had a great time being on a panel for the Freeplay Independent Games Festival.  Along with ace designers Kate Raynes-Goldie and Holly Gramazio, we spoke about “Games with Invisible Buttons” and it is now archived online:

Three designers whose work straddles digital and non-digital, technology, and form, discuss the relationships at work with games with invisible buttons.

At the end we quickly spoke about some of the current projects we’re working on. I mentioned two. I’ve been commissioned by the Creative Recovery Network to create a locative game with a regional town in Queensland. It involves being a location-based experience that is very low-fi, along with archiving stories of the town. To get the link between the past and the present and the need to ground players in the space, I decided to explore archiving play: how people have played in the home, school, streets, and paddocks over the generations. I’m really excited by this idea, and the design is heavily inspired by Hide & Seek’s ace Tiny Games (that Holly worked on!).

The other game I’m working on is my next original major game. It is a digital game, though I have come up with two different versions: a purely digital single-player version, and a 2 player local co-op. Both excite me, but I’m keen at this stage to explore the former as it involves more challenges for me. The premise is this: The Blind Spider and Guide Fly. It really is a character adventure, where it is all about your interactions with your ‘buddy’ and your shared foes. For the single-player version, I’m developing conversation mechanics that involve proximity, context, and combat. I’m inspired by Elan Ruskin’s 2012 GDC talk about AI-driven Dynamic Dialogue for this. One of the things I’m playing with is going with poetic voice-overs rather than realistic dialogue or emotive sounds.

One of the big things I’m doing differently with process in this project is an investment in proper development. In all my projects, I pay every person who works on the team (of course). I pay for every prototype, every iteration. Everything has a price-tag. Most people who spend their time doing indie projects either do it themselves or have a team of people who dedicate their time for free towards a common cause. But for me, I dedicate my own time for free doing the designing, writing, directing, and project management and pay everyone else. What this means is I can only afford so many iterations. I cannot afford to pay for 3 prototypes for instance. I can only afford small iterations. This has been great for learning how to produce as good as you can in as short period of time with little iteration (but also iterating a lot pre-tech and in low-fi ways). But now I want to spend the time iterating properly. How?

I don’t know. I will begin by spending as long as I can with the design and writing before I bring on the whole team. Once I bring on the team I find I spend more time doing project management than anything else. I want to give myself the time to play with design and writing for a while. But of course I need to test. There is only so much I can do in documentation, in my head, and with paper prototypes. So I’ll see what I can learn to put together in Unity myself too. Then, once I have a good starting prototype I’ll call on others and see if the project may attract some development funding… Either way, I’m really excited about spending the time refining and getting the most out of the idea.

Lastly, I have come across a great game design book. In fact, I would call it the best I have read. I love game design books. I love design books. I love lots of different books. I have plenty of books inside and outside game design that influence what I do. But it is only recently that I have come across a game design book that approaches design like designers from other disciplines.

In 2009, Jussi Kuittinen and Jussi Holopainen wrote a paper for DiGRA: ‘Some Notes on the Nature of Game Design’ [pdf]. They analysed key game design books and compared them to key design theories. In conclusion, they found the books don’t address the nature of design:

Judging from the selection of the game design literature we analysed, game design is heavily governed by the object of the design, games. Although this may seem like an overly obvious statement, it carries with itself the connotation that the activity called design, is left to too little attention. Whereas the books concentrate on teaching the reader the principles and elements of game design, at the same time they leave aspects of design activity such as representing, moving and reflecting to little consideration.

This is why I am excited by Tynan Sylvester’s book. Designing Games: A Guide to Engineering Experiences talks about (among other things) the psychology of making games. How you think as a game designer? He also does some welcome busting of a few game design memes. Other books that look at the ‘why’ that I love include The Kobold Press Guide to Board Games, and Bernard De Koven’s The Well-played Game: A Player’s Philosophy. I do love many game design books out there (I especially love collections of mechanics), but there has been a need for this kind of approach and I’m glad I’m stumbling on more them. Do you have others in this ilk?

Universal Problems in Audience, Reader & Player Design: “Late Arrivals”

Last year I had another idea for a book. I have started many books over the years, but in the end I talk myself out of them. I am looking forward to writing a book about the process behind my different projects. But I am waiting until I have a bigger success or at least more time goes by.

One of the ideas I had last year was this: Universal Problems in Audience, Reader & Player Design: How Creatives Across Disciplines & Time Have Resolved ThemIt includes (perhaps 50) problems experienced and addressed by novelists, TV, film, theatre and gamemakers. The book aims to unite us with the problems we all face, while providing valuable insights into how disciplines throughout history have addressed them. Since I may not do anything official with it, I’m not sure if anyone is interested, it may be interesting and helpful to some, and the entries actually need contributions from others, I have decided to share the drafts of some of my entries here.

The idea is partly inspired by one of my favourite books: Universal Principles of Design. But where that book details single principles or theories that can be applied in any way, my idea is a bit more problematic (literally). Firstly, the “problems” listed are not necessarily problems. Designers may intentionally draw on these behaviours. So I don’t mean to label any behaviour as automatically undesirable. Instead, the behaviours listed are ones in which creatives have seen as a problem at some time, and then tried to tackle it. The reasons for seeing them as a problem varies: it may be because they affect a business model, because they limit audience reach, or because they are an impediment to use. Either way, they are behaviours that some designers don’t want.

The are many responses to problems, and dealing with problems involves a lot of different factors. You may address a problem and then create another. The problem may be a solution to another problem you created. Indeed, the work still has to be done by the designer when it comes to determining what the problem is (or problems) and then finding the solution(s) they want. The responses listed have a direct relationship with the diagnosis of the problem, and so the real issue may be overlooked and mistreated. And of course there is no single solution to every problem.

Instead, the idea is to share the way people have seen problems and dealt with the them in the past. It is in part my own response to the perceived problem of ‘reinventing the wheel’. I personally have found value from the drafts I have written, if anything because being exposed to other methods widens my toolset.

So below is a draft for the entry of ‘late entries’. I am putting it out here to see if you find this interesting, and for your help. What examples could be included? What other responses could be included? What is the problem with this whole idea in the first place?


photo by Ryan McGuire
photo by Ryan McGuire

Late Arrivals

Problem Description: People enter a project after it has commenced.

Issue: Important previous information and guidance is missed, making the experience unable to be understood, or completely inaccessible (cannot participate), and possibly interrupting others.

Related: “Point-of-Entry”.

Responses

Dissuading Late Arrival with Timed or Absolute Exclusion
In theatre and cinema there can be ‘lock-out’ policies, where attendees know before-hand that they will not be able to enter the experience if they are late. It may be the audience is not able to enter at all, or they have to wait until a certain time in the performance or screening, or when there is an interval. This solution is to reduce disruption, but does not aid in understanding for the late comers (which may be a penalty in itself).

Dissuading Late Arrival with Penalties
A reduced or more difficult experience. Penalties can include reduced abilities, extra cost (financial or otherwise),  and reduced agency.

An unintended result of territory roll-out is that fans of a series (tv show or game) cannot share in the discovery and discussion. If an experience is released in one country and then much later in another, this results in penalties in the form of spoilers and social exclusion for those that cannot access the experience at the same time as others.

Encouraging Early/On-Time Arrival with Rewards
Encouraging early or on-time arrival by making the beginning of the experience highly desirable and easy to attend. An aspect of making it easy to be on time is to send updates and clear information. Scheduling the commencement and communicating any rewards for being on time (and then they are successful) is part of operant conditioning.

Integrating Late Arrivals
Designing the experience so late arrivals can still be involved in some way. Game Masters of live role-playing games, for instance, can integrate new players into the experience. For digital and live experiences, this can include giving the late comer(s) a guest role of some kind. They are a NPC (non-playing character) that can be a part of experience but not in a position to damage the events due to lack of knowledge. This can be done by given them specific and simple instructions, or they don’t interact in any meaningful way with the players. There could also be a spectator role they can take on. This means making sure the spectator role is easily integrated and entertaining in some way.

Staggered Entry Times
The experience could be designed so the late comer(s) can enter the experience in some way in a meaningful way. This means there needs to be a short to no instruction or tutorial needed or they can learn from watching, as well a each round being relatively short so waiting isn’t a problem.

Recaps
Introduced in television in the 1950s onwards, “previously on” sections at the beginning of a tv show explained what the audience may have missed (or forgotten). Recapitulation can vary, from showing the ending of the previous episode, a montage of important events, a narration of events, integrated into the actual performance, and so on. Recaps on mechanics learned in previous gaming sessions a while past hasn’t been explored as much so far (?).

Hybrid Seriality
Another approach to information delivery and comprehension is ‘hybrid seriality.’ Part of the problem of Late Arrivals is missing key information needed for understanding. For instance in television, if viewers miss an episode they may not know what is happening or they may not get satisfaction from the events which have unfolded over separate episodes. TV theorist Robin Nelson observed a technique to resolve this problem in the early years of television, a technique he called “flexi-narrative” (Nelson, 1997, 34).  Nelson studied TV shows in the 1970s like Hills Street Blues, and found that the hit TV shows mixed both series and serial techniques: “The blurring of distinction between the series and serial affords schedulers the joint advantage of an unresolved narrative strand — a cliff-hanger to draw the audience to watch the next episode — and a new group of characters and self-contained stories in each episode” (ibid.).

In game design, Andrew Rollings and Ernest Adams describe the same approach as “episodic delivery” (Rollings and Adams, 2003, 117). “An episodic delivery,” they explain, “is a cross between serial and the series. Like the series, the episodic delivery contains a limited number of episodes, with an overall story line that is followed across the entirety. Unlike the series, however, there is often fairly tight integration between episodes and significant overlap of plot threads.”

So in both these instances, an episode includes not ongoing stories to keep audiences and players interested, but also satisfying endings to events within the episode. So comprehension is not essential to access, but consistently engaging audiences can be rewarded.

Nelson, R. (1997) TV Drama in Transition: Forms, Values, and Cultural Change, New York, N.Y., St. Martin’s Press.

Rollings, A. and E. Adams (2003) Andrew Rollings and Ernest Adams on Game Design, 1st ed., Indianapolis, Ind.: New Riders.

Other Responses

Go with it

Random Solution (click to see if something sparks an idea)

Perhaps this isn’t the actual problem?

Or just go with your intuition…


I would love to hear your thoughts!