But It’s Worse in Games Because They are Interactive

FeministFrequency recently released a new Episode of their Series “Tropes vs Women”. This time, they discuss Women as Background Decoration, especially the prevalence of female Sex Workers in Videogames. As always, the critical perspective is welcome and the accumulation of examples is seriously disturbing.

However, I noticed that throughout the episode, the show makes a common argument which continues to struck me as questionable.

Sexual objectification is, of course, ubiquitous in mass media of all forms but since video games are an interactive medium, players are allowed to move beyond the traditional role of voyeur or spectator. Because of its essential interactive nature, gaming occupies a unique and potentially more detrimental position vis-a-vis the portrayal and treatment of female characters.

Variations of the above argument are also common in the criticism of violence or racism in videogames. The idea being that detrimental aspects of media are especially harmful in videogames because of their interactive nature. Here is why I find this argument debatable.

Great Resposibility Without Great Power

To begin with, the argument is used almost exclusively to argue AGAINST videogames – to justify harsher restrictions, a more scrutinous treatment. If the argument was true, the opposite should also be true. Games ought to teach more effectively. Games ought to makes us more virtuous by portraying morally positive themes. Games ought to convey stories in an even more griping way. Games ought to make art even artier.

However, this argument never seems to be made. Even in the Games for Change movement, the understanding is that games need to be specifically designed for tease out the positive effects. Meanwhile the negative influence seem to be always there whether intended or not.

When listing the positive ways in which games influence people, even the most avid games proponents seem to come up with tamely pragmatic ideas like “improved hand-eye coordination” – as if our society was suffering under an epidemic of bad hand-eye-coordination.

It would be ridiculous to claim that interactivity made games the overall superior medium. So why do we seem to accept the flip side so easily – that interactivity makes games overall the more dangerous medium?

My Medium Could Kick Your Medium’s Butt

In fact, we can distill a universal form of the argument and apply it to any other medium.

“Negative aspects in [medium X] are especially harmful because of [what makes medium X distinct]”

  • Literature – Literature is the most harmful of all media because literature engages the imagination of the reader. Problematic content is not merely perceived but actively re-constructed in the mind of the reader. There is no way for the reader to distance themselves mentally from the material. Problematic ideas are confabulated with the reader’s personal memories and experiences and have therefore an easier time to take hold. By analogy, horror authors know well that the most terrifying monsters are the ones that we merely imagine ourselves.

  • Cinema – Cinema is the most harmful of all media because of its overwhelming, immersive visual nature. Through editing, pacing, camera perspectives, sound and special effects, cinema creates a reality that surpasses the real – a hyper reality. Every moment is orchestrated and fine-tuned to be more intense and vivid than reality can ever be. Visual communication is also a non-verbal communication – one that happens subconsciously. The openly desired result is a surrender of critical thinking called “suspension of disbelief”. As the old proverb goes, a picture is worth more than a thousand words. And a movie is a 1000 pictures in rapid succession.

  • Theater – Theater is the most harmful of all media because unlike cinema, it actually happens. The events on stage are not the result of special effects and clever editing, they physically happen between real human beings. This difference is what Walther Benjamin calls “Aura”. The inherently Auratic nature of Theater makes it the most authentic of all media. Its negative effects are the most intermediate because there is no screen to separate the audience from the portrayed events.

  • Music – Music is the most harmful of all media because of its engrossing and seductive nature. Nietzsche singled out music as the art of Dionysus, the god of madness and ecstasy. The loss of control and disregard for ethics is inherent to what music is. Music works on humans in insidious ways they often have no control over. Pop music is capable of making us remember and repeat the most trite lyrics over and over again, without being able to stop. Music is also capable of crossing cultural boundaries. Its potentially harmful and subliminal messages can be universally received and internalized by all humans.

… and so on. Of course, all of the above statements are true. That’s because the initial argument is actually as a kind of tautology. Of course each medium has their own, uniquely effective means of communicating ideas. If the ideas are problematic, they will be communicated in a way inherent to that medium. It is no excuse to single out a specific medium. You could just as well single out any other medium. It is also not practical to measure and compare the effectiveness of different media. They work in inherently different ways. Apples to oranges.

I think games are often singled out here because of different reasons. Maybe because they are just the newest kid on the block? Maybe because they are so popular with younger audiences? Maybe because games don’t offer enough positive counter-examples? Whatever the reason is, the “because they are interactive” argument seems more like an a-posteriori rationalization. It should be contested and never is.

Is this Necessary?

Going back to the original Feminist Frequency video – what also strikes me is that the argument is actually not necessary to the line of reasoning there. Yes, the series looks at the problematic portrayal of women in videogames. It is not necessary to reason why it does so. It is the premise of the series.

A frequent argument against the Feminist Frequency series is that sexist tropes exist in other media. The obvious answer is that just because other media use those tropes, it doesn’t mean it is ok to use them in games. But conversely, if sexism is clearly harmful in other media, it shouldn’t be necessary to emphasize that it is harmful in games.

Netrunner: The Way to Win is Not to Play

I’ve been playing Netrunner for more than 4 Months now. I have caught up with all of the released expansions so far. I went to some major tournaments. I started recording my games. I met some really great people. The game has been good to me.

My initial impression of the game has evolved a lot during this time and I started to notice some interesting patterns. I’ve been paying attention to the meta-game and dominant strategies. It seems like a lot of them seem to focus on disrupting or avoiding what the implied structure of the game is. And some of that is even intended. Let me explain.

Netrunner is a game were Runners hack into a Corporation’s servers to steal the Agendas within. Corporations install Agendas in servers to advance and score them. They try to keep the Runners out by using ICE. Runners break the ICE by using Icebreaker software. This struggle is to me the implied structure of Netrunner. This structure is something a lot of strategies seem to want to get around.

Fast Advance

Fast Advance

“Win the game without the trouble of having to deal with your opponent.”

One of the most dominant strategies by Corporations is the so-called Fast Advance. It’s an umbrella term for various combos that allow Corporations to score agendas without having to install them into servers. Most Corps nowadays use the identity NBN with Astroscropt Progam and SanSan City Grid. But you can also go with HB and Biotic Labor or Jinteki and Trick of Light. The most agressive Fast Advance decks use a combination of them.

By not having to install cards into servers, this strategy effectively eliminates a huge portion of the game. Runners may put a lot of cards in their deck to get into Servers. But if there are no servers for them to run on, a huge portion of their deck becomes useless.

Now, it’s not necessarily that bad. Even without external servers, there are still other places for the Runner to run on. They can hack into the Corp’s hand, deck or discard pile to search for agendas there. And in fact, this is an effective strategy against Fast Advance. However, going fishing for agendas in the Corp’s hands often comes down to pure chance. Fast Advance tends to eliminate a lot of strategic nuance in favor of lucky draws.

Scorched Earth

Scorched Earth

“Win the game if you have more money than your opponent.”

One very old strategy is for the Corporation to kill the Runner with Meat Damage using Scorched Earth. It’s a cad that has been out since the Core Set. It proved to be so effective, it has become a mainstay of the game. In order to kill the Runner, the Corp needs to give them a Tag. Players have been very creative in finding out how to do this. The most successful strategies are using SEA Source or Mid-Season Replacements – both of them require the Corp to have more money than the Runner.

It is no wonder the first expansion ever printed included Plascrete Carapace, an armor for the Runner to defend against Scorched Earth. Every Runner deck has to include at least 2 of them ever since. But since they can’t be tutored (yet), this defense is still quite unreliable.

For a Runner, this can feel very frustrating. You might be on your way to unravel the Corp’s security system. But then suddenly they show you 3 cards and you lose the game. No question about it. No warnings. Nothing you can do about it. Just a binary “you lose the game”. Some decks may even set up weak security on purpose to lure Runners in. So Runners will begrudgingly add their 2 Plascretes in every deck they ever build just because Scorched Earth is a thing that can happen. And then comes the sting when you draw one of them and you know your opponent is actually playing Fast Advance. Bergh.

The flip-side is that if a Runner knows a deck is heavily focused on this play, they can play around it by not running and collecting money instead. This turns Netrunner the most painfully boring waiting game.

The Combo

accelerated

“Play three cards from your entire deck for free to win the game. As a bonus you get to have a 5-minute monologue explaining how exactly you won and how awesome you are.”

In my opinion, the worst thing that happened to Netrunner recently was the Power Shutdown + Accelerated Diagnostics combo. Power Shutdown makes the Corp discard cards in order to trash a Runner’s tools. But some players find out you can use this card to trash YOUR ENTIRE DECK into your discard pile. Usually this would mean you would lose next turn – having no cards to draw is a loss condition for the Corporation. But then they use Jackson Howard to pick 3 cards from archives and put them into the empty deck. Finally, they play Accelerated Diagnostics to play the 3 selected cards for free, winning the game.

How exactly they win the game is depends on the actual deck. Players have been very creative in figuring out how to win the game with 3 cards. The classic is SEA Source, 2x Scorched Earth. But some more elaborate combos manage to get more clicks, repeat the combo to do some more fancy stuff. Some decks actually manage to score 7 agenda points in one turn out of hand.

The frustrating thing is that because the combo lets you access any card in your entire deck, it doesn’t take too many cards to initiate it. A lot of the combos are also pretty cheap to pull off. So the game devolves into the Corp doing nothing except drawing cards and collecting money until they initiate the combo, play solitaire for a minute or two and finally declare they won the game.

Luckily, the combo never got too popular and you don’t see it that often nowadays. If you do, it’s makes you feel like you just wasted a lot of time.

Anarchs

Anarchs

Anarchs – Disruption by Design

Interestingly, an entire Runner faction also focuses on disrupting the core structure of the game. Instead of breaking ICE with Icebreakers, Anarchs use cards like Parasite and Datasucker to destroy ICE completely. They also have a lot of cards that can mill the Corporation to make them lose by running out of cards. So far, the latter hasn’t developed into a reliable deck type yet, but we are getting there. While certainly not as disruptive as some of the above examples, it suggests that this play style may be partially intended by the game’s designers.

Disruption by Design

I am convinced that combos like Power Shutdown + Accelerated Diagnostics have not been intended by the game’s designers. I also suspect that certain Fast Advance or Scorched Earth strategies have been pushed further than the original game design anticipated. Many of the above examples reduce the strategic complexity of Netrunner to a binary “Are you doing that thing or are you not doing that thing?” – the classic example of a Degenerative Strategy. On the other hand, some of those ideas are actually rooted in the game’s design. Scorched Earth has been purposefully designed to win games in a surprising fashion. Fast Advance is a core concept or else there wouldn’t be that many cards, that enable it. The entire faction of Anarchs is based on the idea of disruption.

It occurred to me that the premise of disruption is actually what motivates a lot of players in games. Players rarely play RPGs actually to role-play. They want to level up their characters to ridiculous levels and equip them with the most excessive gear to completely destroy whatever the game intended as a challenge. A posteriori, this is then labeled as “freedom of choice” or “creative expression”. Players often don’t want to just overcome challenges. They want to overcome the game as a whole.

There are two ways to spin it. On the one hand this can be seen as a creative force. Players aren’t sheep. They aren’t content with being slaves to the systems of games. They analyze the systems and exploit loopholes to their advantage. It can be seen as an act of creative subversion, of rebellion even.

On the other hand, especially in context of multi-player games, this can be also seen as a very juvenile attitude. Nitpicking the exact wording of every card to squeeze out that crucial advantage. Second-guessing and smart-assing your way to not only win but also to satisfy a desperate, egoistic desire to feel superior. It’s the attitude of “I didn’t say >Simon Says<". It's when you say to an 8-year-old "I don't want to hear a single word from you!" and they say "baaaah!" because that's not a word.

Luckily, over time the community itself develops a sense for boundaries that shouldn’t be crossed. The lack of staying power for the Power Shutdown + Accelerated Diagnostics combo shows that even the most win-oriented players aren’t happy when they win by playing essentially a game solitaire. Deck types like The Read Coats show that you can be incredibly annoying without disrupting the implicit idea of what the game is about. And yes, most of those strategies have counters – either in form of strategies or new cards released in expansions. But the dynamics of the Netrunner meta made me reconsider my understanding of Degenerative Strategies as a game designer. I’ve been used to think that they are bad and something to avoid. I’ve come to realize that they may actually be part of the reason why we play games at all – for better or worse.

Stepped on a Narrative LEGO

Bioshock developer Ken Levene held a talk at this year’s GDC titled “Narrative Legos”. Even though I haven’t visited GDC personally, the title stood out to me. It hints at a playful, simple, systematic and yet creative solution to the challenge of creating narrative in Videogames. It implies you could somehow break down linear narratives into modular bits that snap together to create stories with the ease of a child playing with a toy.

To my surprise, what Ken actually talked about is apparently an idea on how to implement NPC AI in Videogames. He proposed a system based on linear percentage bars called “Passsions”. Each NPC has multiple Passions. The player’s actions raise or lower the percentage bars depending on if the action improves or runs against a given Passion. So if an NPC hates Orcs and the player kills an Orc, that Passion bar increases. This, in turn unlocks narrative paths. Hilariously, these basically boiled down to various forms of “Combat Buffs” and we are led to believe that Ken had also smarter ideas but hasn’t mentioned them because of reasons. His ultimate goal is using this system to make a game narrative repayable and systemic like a game of Civilization. I immediately saw some fundamental issues with the presented system.

Narrative LEGO

“I think we gonna need more of the “Fetch Quest”-pieces to complete this model of Ulysses.”

Living it down

The most immediate problem is that the proposed system is actually not at all different from the systems we already use in games. The karma system in Fallout 3, for example, is a global Passion percentage bar that judges player’s action on a good/evil scale. Many games implement similar systems. Mass Effect, Infamous, Black & White, you name it. Ken’s suggestion is merely to have more percentage bars instead of just one (not unlike GTA2) – to introduce more variety in the way different characters react to your actions. However, this doesn’t actually change the fundamental problems with judging the player’s actions on a linear scale.

To illustrate those problems, here is something that happened to me in Fallout 3. I decided once to actually nuke Megaton, an peaceful village. Naturally, murdering a whole community caused quite a hit for my karma rating. I lost 1000 karma points to be exact. NPCs all around me started treating me like the mass-murderer I was. So far so good. Later on, I found myself in a situation where I needed my karma rating to improve. I went to Carlos, a thirsty beggar and gave him some purified water. Each water bottle I gave him resulted in 50 karma points. Good thing I was hoarding them. Just 20 bottles set the record straight. And with that, the fact that I destroyed an entire town wasn’t a big deal anymore. The debt was paid.

Megaton Explosion in Fallout 3

“Don’t worry about that, Hank. I have a stash of water bottles to make up for it. Soon, nobody will even mention it.”

Of course, one could argue that this is just a matter of balance. Killing so many innocents should be weighted more heavily against giving away a bottle of water. Or maybe donating water bottles should yield diminishing returns. This is all true and good, but I think there is more to the problem. I claim that even if we found the “right” way to offset the moral debt of killing dozens of innocents, the fact that this is something I did should still matter in the way people interacted with me. I should not be able to live down an action like this. The fact that I can is an effect of using percentage bars. It is the effect if quantifying. We say “money does not stink”. Neither do karma points or Passion points. They don’t have a memory of how they came together. They reduce the actions of the player to a numeric value where killing a village and donating a bunch of water is the same as doing nothing. It is not a side-effect that can be tweaked out. This fundamentally the way they work.

Be My Vending Machine

Another criticism of this approach often brought up in the past is that it essentially models characters as vending machines. Characters accept favors and dish out rewards in return. It is a tragically simplistic, even sociopathic way of thinking about human relationships. It basically elevates the fetch quest to the basic building block of human interaction. How this model fails is evident in the current Friend Zone epidemic. Turns out, showering a person with favors doesn’t actually result in deeper relationships.

Hug Me Vending Machine

21st Century Character Design

Interestingly, this has been the default model for depicting romance in games. Especially Japanese interactive novels follow the same formula since ages now. Players max out a hidden “Love-meter” by paying attention to what their potential target is interested in and picking the right lines in a dialogue or making the right narrative choices. It communicates to players that in order to be successful at romance you need to to be glib, spineless, manipulative creepers. Say the right things and you’ll get in her pants. Christine Love is currently working on a game that aims at addressing and exposing those mechanisms. I’d be more interested in the kind of LEGO she builds with.

Upside-down LEGO

What applies to romantic relationships also applies to other types of relationships. But question of why the percentage bar is not a good model for human interaction is not an easy one to answer. I think a major aspect is that actions are only understood in a social context. If a stranger on the street stopped you and gave you a cake, would like him in return? Hardly. We would be probably not even willing to accept said cake. Without any further context, it is impossible for us to judge the intent of that kind of action. If anything we would be suspicious that there is something fishy about the cake. This thought experiment suggests that to some extent, Ken got it the wrong way around. It is not necessarily our actions that manipulate the status of our relationships. It is the status of our relationships that allows us to act towards each other differently.

Free Candy

“OMG, candy is my Passion!”

For a couple that has been together for years, expensive jewelry as a present is a way of acting out the relationship. For two teenage classmates that barely ever spoke to each other, expensive jewelry is creepy and inappropriate (even if the recipient has a “Passion” for jewelry). Buying doughnuts and coffee for your colleagues at the office is a way to live out that relationship. Buying doughnuts and coffee for the anonymous cashier at the supermarket is weird creepy and inappropriate (even if they are currently thirsty).

Everything is 0-sum

I think another way of framing the issue with Ken’s model is his tendency to think of relationships as zero-sum games. A zero-sum game is an exchange where one participant gains what the other loses. The total sum of value hasn’t changed after the exchange has been made. Ken mentions this when thinking on a global scale – his goal is to create a system where it is impossible to please everybody. Being friends with one person should make other people dislike you. But he inadvertently also implemented this system in the way he models the relationship between two people. You give me favors, I give you X (X being mostly “combat buffs”). Note that this is not how relationships work. In fact, if a partner starts treating a friendly relationship as a zero-sum game, it’s a good hint that something is going seriously wrong. We understand somebody, who marries just for money as being a manipulative asshole. Once such motivation is revealed, it can be a very good reason for divorce.

Marriage

Um… does Mrs. Levine know about this?

A healthy, friendly relationship is usually something both participants draw gains from – something that creates more value where there was less before. Inviting a friend over for dinner is pleasurable and desirable for both parties. You learn about each other, you share stories, ideas, gossip. Yes, one person has to prepare the food. This investment is usually seen as insignificant compared to the value of companionship. Also, note that the size of that practical investment doesn’t necessary relate to the gains from the encounter. A more opulent meal doesn’t automatically result in a more friendly evening. It’s not something that can be maximized this way. Sometimes even the opposite can be true – a spectacularly botched-up dinner may be a bonding experience for the parties involved.

The Speed of Rumors

We already discussed how the percentage bar system doesn’t have a “memory” of the player’s actions. A related issue is that implementations of such systems often also ignore the details of information acquisition. Something that is vastly important in the way we live out relationships is careful management of appearances. We pay attention what kind of information we share with what people. Sometimes, the mere act of sharing information can actually have significant impact on a relationship. Sharing on gossip can bond two parties against another one. We are usually more sincere with people close to us, but we also feel the need to pad our relationships with “white lies”. Withholding significant information or even giving false witness is the fundamental tool for intrigue and deception. Of course, it also carries the risk of being exposed and having that knowledge being used against you. Ken showed a screenshot of Game of Thrones in his presentation. I wonder if he actually watched the series.

Sansa

Oh cheer up, Sansa. Just do some fetch quests for Joffrey and he’ll love you again.

Here is a common example of how games fail to take this into account. Again, in Fallout 3, I sneak into a village. It is nighttime, nobody knows I’m here. I sneak up to an NPC and kill him in his sleep using a silent weapon. Immediately the entire village is alarmed and starts attacking me. In spite of various stealth and assassination skills, it is impossible in Fallout 3 to hide your actions or deceive characters. Every NPC in the world has instant and perfect knowledge about all your deeds. This completely eliminates all opportunity for intrigue unless certain dialogue options are specifically provided to do so.

Ken’s system also fails to reflect that. His presentation also assumes an objective truth about the player’s actions. Of course, we could easily conceive of a more complex system where the player’s actions need to be reported to NPCs before they can affect their Passion percentage bars. So after I killed some Orcs I have to actually go to the Ork-hating Elf and report to him that I killed 12 Orcs since the last time we met. Such a system exposes the opportunity for a different kind of interation. What if I just told the NPC I killed Orcs without actually killing Orcs? In most cases, there is no way for him to catch me on that. Or even better, I wouldn’t even need to lie – just having a long conversation on how I share his hatred for Orcs should be enough for him to realize that we share Passions, right? So what is this Orc-killing business even good for?

It’s not the AI that is the problem. Killing Orcs simply is a poor way to build relationships with.

3th Wheel Is The Fun Wheel

Finally, a last issue I have with Ken’s LEGO is the fact that all Passions are tracked just towards one person – the player. If another NPC kills Orcs, it won’t affect the Orc-hating Elf. Since the game is supposed to react to the player, this seems like a logical solution. But in reality, the relationships between the player and the NPCs often turn out to be the most boring ones in games.

This was an insight I had from playing the Mass Effect series. Especially in the 2nd and 3rd installment, there are some smaller romances going on between NPC team members – EDI can hook up with Joker, Tali can hook up with Garrus. To me, interacting with those relationships felt a lot more interesting than whatever Shepard had going on with his potential romance targets. Naturally, playing cupid with other people is a intriguing activity IRL. But I think there is more going on here.

3rd Wheel

She gets it!

First, manipulating a relationship you are part of within the framework of a game ALWAYS carries with it the sense of success or failure. This is especially true when it comes to romantic relationships. In games, you don’t so much romance NPCs, you game them and win them like trophies. Romancing an NPC and failing is not an attractive option. If you fail, you reload. However, when it comes to influencing the relationship between two NPCs, unsuccessful or unexpected outcomes seem much more acceptable because you are not directly affected. Urging your buddy to ask out a girl in a bar and watching him being turned down can be equally interesting as watching him succeed.

Another advantage is the symmetry of 3rd person relationships. A relationship between a player and an NPC is bound to be less detailed because the means of communication are stunted. The player can’t just talk to an NPC like they can talk to a real person, they have to use some kind of awkward interface – a multiple-choice menu in most cases. On the other side, the NPC never really understands the player, they only fire off certain pre-programmed reactions. It is a far cry for how it feels to talk to a real person. On the other hand, watching two NPCs interact with each other feels natural. Sure, the dialogue is pre-written. But it perfectly emulates how it feels like to watch to real people interact. The relationship feels more genuine because we model and perceive other people’s relationships differently from the way we model our own relationships to other people.

Finally, there is a simple technical reason for why 3rd person relationships may be more rewarding to focus on – because as the storyteller, you don’t have to show everything. Just one or two scenes between Tali and Garrus were enough for me to fill in the gaps what is going on when I wasn’t watching. At the same time, scene after scene of dialogue between Shepard and Miranda about her daddy issues have utterly failed at conveying anything close to what romance feels like.

Movies, Theater and Literature always involve the audience as a witness rather than an active participant. This may not only be a function of those mediums missing an input channel. It may be also a choice grounded in narrative affordance.

Hand Down LEGO

Multiple aspects of Ken’s narrative LEGO have been implemented for years in games. I found it quite baffling that instead of actually dealing with the issues those systems caused, Ken chose to present yet another iteration and label it as some sort of new idea. More to the point, people like Chris Crawford have been working on EXACTLY those kinds of systems, tracking multiple values across various characters to generate procedural narrative. Crawford’s Storytron was the result of experimentation with such systems for years.

Another example would be the AI engine of games like Crusader Kings 2. That engine actually exhibits a lot of the features if Ken’s proposal. It tracks opinions and personal goals of a huge number of procedurally generated NPCs. It would be worth looking into how Crusader Kings 2 gets around the fore-mentioned issues. For example, the nobility of the medieval ages is a convenient framing for a system that rewards being a scheming sociopath.

We Can Build It

I don’t know if a universal narrative LEGO is even possible. I don’t have a superior alternative ready. But since Ken’s talk is supposed to start a conversation, let us start by actually learning from existing systems instead of repeating the same mistakes. I think an improved way of modeling relationships in games should consider the following issues:

  • Remember Actions – If characters are to react to the player’s actions, they need to be able to identify and remember them. It’s the only way the player’s action can be an actual talking point. Just a percentage bar that averages away all the details doesn’t cut it.

  • Quality over Quantity – Instead of tracking linear values, a meaningful narrative model needs to find ways of expressing quality. Not every friendly relationship transitions smoothly into a romance like a linear slider suggests. We have differentiated opinions of each other. A successful system needs to be able to reflect hat.

  • Stop Trying to Make Fetch Happen – A fetch quest is a very limited way of forming and manipulating relationships. We need to come up with better verbs to improve the model.

  • Acting Instead of Winning – Modeling relationships as something to level up and win is a problematic way of portraying them. A more useful way of thinking about them may be as something players can “act out”. In this framework, the player’s actions are not means to level up relationships, they are the narrative payoff in themselves and are enabled by the relationships. Relationships shouldn’t be tied to tangible rewards. They are only meaningful if there are no ulterior motifs at play.

  • Lie to Me – A model of social character interaction must also model deception and misinformation.

  • 3rd Person over 1st Person – Having the player character as a participant in a simulated relationship is a whole new can of worms. It might be easier and more effective to focus on 3rd person relationships first.

Android Netrunner – The Game Designer’s Game

I recently got into Android Netrunner. It is a card game by Richard Garfield of Magic: The Gathering Fame. It used to be a Trading Card Game itself but never succeeded in that format. It was recently re-released as a so-called “Living Card Game” and is currently enjoying a great deal of attention. I noticed that especially Game Designers are quite fascinated by it. Here are some of my observations.

The first time I heard about the game from Nels Anderson on the Idle Thumbs podcast. It caught my attention but not enough to follow it up. In the subsequent months I stumbled over it a couple of times until I gave in and bought the Core Set. Ever since I started visiting the local Netrunner meet-up and began collecting the expansions. I even started playing the game on OCTGN. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that in the meantime, Nels himself started his own Netrunner podcast on Idle Thumbs. Also, Quintin Smith from Shut Up And Sit Down seems to have caught the Netrunner virus as well.

Theme and Flavor

To me, one of the core Aspects of Netrunner is its elegant portrayal of its theme and the rich flavor it radiates. Netrunner is a card game duel very much like Magic: The Gathering. But instead of generic fantasy wizards, it portrays a much more specific Cyberpunk world. One player plays a hacker. The other player plays an evil corporation. The corporation protects their computer servers with security software to fulfill their mischievous secret plans. The hacker’s job is to hack into the servers and to steal the corporation’s secrets. This may not sound that different from Magic, but the actual execution of that setting really hits home. In Magic, the theme is really just a thin, loose veneer over an intricate rule set. It is never really evident how individual cards really portray a confrontation between wizards. What actually happens when you play a land card? Where do all those weird creatures come from? What does it mean when that bird does 2 damage and how come just one of those birds can kill two trained soldiers? The Magic experience is not caring about such minutia and enjoying the interplay of rules while soaking in the vague hint of the fantasy setting.

Netrunner offers an experience where rules and setting are much more tightly interwoven. For Hackers, cards represent their software, their hardware and their underworld connections. For Corporations, the cards represent their security software, their secret agendas or expert employees. Various game elements have special names. The corporation’s draw deck is called “R&D” because that’s where all the new stuff is coming from. The discard pile is called “Archives”, the hand cards are called “HQ”, cards on the table are placed in “Remote Servers”. It sounds goofy and confusing at first, but it actually contributes to a thematically more meaningful gameplay.

Netrunner - Board

All elements of the game have themed naming conventions. They seem goofy at first, but they show how well the the rules and theme are interwoven.

One interesting improvement of the new edition over the original TCG is the inclusion of factions. As a hacker, you are not just an anonymous hacker, you have an identity which belongs to one of 4 factions. You can be the Akira-esque child hacker Chaos Theory, part of the playful group of “Shapers”. She can install more programs than others and can use a smaller deck of cards because she is still a child playing around with just her favorite playthings. Or you can be Andromeda a high-class “Criminal”, who starts the game with 9 instead of 5 cards because she is exceptionally wealthy and has a great amount of resources at her disposal. Depending on the identity, the play style and the actual deck can be completely different. At the same time, the identities also bring with them a specificity to the portrayed conflict.

But in the end, what really gets me is the rich flavor the individual cards bring with them. Flavor can be a difficult concept to grasp – often it can be one of those “I know it when I see it” aspects of a game. Netrunner oozes Flavor. Each card is incredibly evocative – either by portraying the world Netrunner plays in or by depicting a very specific story beat. Together they are capable of stinging together surprisingly coherent narratives. A hacker may start a self-destructive drug-induced Stim Hack to get an edge over a particularly well defended server, sustain brain damage the process and use Public Sympathy to get back on her feet. Meanwhile characters like Director Haas from the Corporation “Haas Bioroid” are depicted on multiple cards fleshing out the lore of a ruthless CEO, who always gets what she wants except when it comes to her spoiled Playboy son.

Netrunner - Flavor

The Hostile Takeover took too long and was prevented with an Inside Job run on a server that was previously thought of as hack-proof. How will the board of executives react to the bad news?

Fundamentally, none of this new or unique. The exceptional thing about it is the actual execution. The pieces seem to fall together much more easily than in TCGs like Magic. The effect can be intoxinating.

Asymetry

One extraordinary aspect of the game’s design is its inherent asymmetry. The two players don’t just play different factions, they actually play according to completely different rules with different goals. Corporations secure servers, hackers break into them. One player builds a puzzle. The other player has to solve it. It is a game design paradigm reminiscent of Little Big Planet or Jason Rohrer’s The Castle Doctrine except that the design and testing of a level are framed as an confrontational duel and happen simultaneously.

Netrunner Asymetry

Depending on which side you play as, the game experience can be radically different… at yet they share common themes.

A friend of mine tried the game but was put of by it, specifically by the asymmetry. It struck me that this particular feature could be one of the reasons why the game is more appealing to Game Designers. To some extent, it can be much easier to design and balance a duel game where both players have the same abilities. As soon as one player has an ability the other one doesn’t, you need to counter-balance. Not only do you have to preserve a sense of fairness, it is also important to convey a comparable level of depth and engagement in what is essentially a second iteration on the game. It would be easy to accidentally end up with a game where one payer does all the work and has all the fun while the other just blindly draws and plays cards. So when a game comes along that successfully pulls of that difficult balance act, it often enjoys is a certain sense of respect and awe from the game design connoisseurs. I believe that this is one of the reasons for Starcraft’s sustained success and it think it plays a role in how Netrunner is percieved.

Affordances

As a side note, there is minor thing that struck me about Netrunner. I really appreciate how Richard Garfield leverages the affordances of playing cards as objects to design his games. In Magic, the tap mechanic was a clever and simple way to indicate if a card’s ability has been used. In Netrunner, cards protecting the server are placed sideways, indicating they are in the way of the invading player. The Corporation plays all cards face-down because they are secretive. The cards are then dramatically revealed during runs not unlike the trap mechanic in Yu-Gi-Oh. The hidden information introduces bluffing as a cornerstone of the corporation strategy.

Netrunner - Trap Card

“Ummm…. I mean I rez that ice.”

There is also a beautifully elegant way of tracking a player’s “health points” – they are represented by the number of cards the player has in their hand. If a player gets injured, they have to drop cards randomly. This has the potential to ruin a carefully developed strategy, so even on an emotional level, it actually “hurts” the victim. It also makes healing more straight forward – just find a way to draw more cards. On a practical level, it is not even necessary to keep track of some health-points or health-tokens. The number is always evident for both players.

Meta Game

One of the most striking differences between the 1st edition of Netrunner and the most recent one is it’s publishing format. The original edition was a Trading Card Game very much like much like Magic – players bought a starter pack which they could upgrade by buying booster packs. All packs contained random cards. So each player would have a different pool of cards at their disposal, which they would develop strategies around. This eventually was supposed in creating more variety. Magic was a game where the surprise and novelty came often from dealing with cards you’ve never seen before. The new Netrunner edition is being released as a so-called “Living Card Game” – a new model introduced by the publisher Fantasy Flight Games. It seems to be an evolution of the recent board game success Dominion. Players start out by buying a large, board-game sized (and priced) box containing a wide selection of specifically selected cards. With those cards, they are able to play a completely satisfying game. There are even enough cards inside to mix things up – to construct different decks that keep the experience fresh and new even using the same set. However, Fantasy Flight also releases expansions for the game. Unlike traditional board game expansions, they are actually very cheap (around 10 eur) and small. Also, they are released on a frequent schedule – a new pack is released every month or so.

This solves a certain problem that occurred with Trading Card Games like Magic. Especially with the advent of eBay, it was possible to buy yourself a victory. If you invested enough money, you could get this specific combination of rare out-of-print cards that would basically guarantee victory in most cases. As the number of cards increased, this got really out of hand in Magic. Soon the creators started restricting which cards are legal in tournaments or even went on creating tournament formats like Limited, where you would buy random card packs at the tournament and construct decks out of those.

The Living Card Format sidesteps that issue altogether by making all of the cards readily available. There are no random packs. So if a card turns out to be exceptionally powerful, it is quite easy to just get that expansion and start using it yourself. Of course, this is still a way to pull money out the player’s pockets, but it no longer follows that Las Vegas philosophy of an endless money sink. Now, it is much more reminiscent of a TV series, where you would buy the next season on DVD because you really liked the previous one.

As a additional side effect, there seems to be a lot more focus on the meta game. Be it on podcasts, websites, YouTube channels or in conversations at a local game store, the Netrunner community is in the state of a constant discourse over strategies and deck building philosophies. Cards, decks and strategies go in and out of fashion. Of course, this is again no different from Magic. However, in Magic the meta-game was something with a high entry threshold – in the form of the sheer number of cards and the financial burden associated in getting them. The meta-game in Netrunner accessible, even more accessible than the meta-game of something like Starcraft 2. Even the most advanced tournament decks are still playing a lot of cards from the core set. Just after 3 games I was able to at least partially follow YouTube recordings of regional matches.

The Living Card format seems to mirror a certain sentiment among the digital games. It is a design philosophy that voluntarily avoids exploitative Whale-farming strategies that seek at creating hyper-obsessive players to fuel their business model. Instead, it focuses on more healthy, small-scale, content-centered communities. It benefits from a wider causal appeal, lower entry thresholds and more world-of-mouth publicity. Because the strategy puts the game content rather than the business model in the spotlight, I believe it is coincidentally also a philosophy game designers appreciate in particular.

Thinking Man’s Game

Finally, there is one aspect of Netrunner that stands out when compared to Magic. It requires a lot more strategic thinking. This is something the Terminal 7 podcast already commented on. Magic is 70% deck building and 30% actual play. Netrunner is 30% deck building and 70% actual play. Magic can be a very streamlined experience. Draw a card, tap a card, play a card, next turn. A good deck will play itself. The mana curve often trims down decision trees into obvious low-hanging fruits. Of course, this makes the game so addictive at the same time. The recent Hearthstone game by Blizzard expands that concept even further – it is essentially an even more streamlined Magic. It’s Magic Blitz. Netrunner, is everything but that. Turns in Netrunner feel slower. Actions play out over multiple turns. Strategies can take a whole game to pay out. Each turn consist of 3 – 4 individual actions. Each of these actions can be chosen from a whole menu of available ones. One turn you will play a magic-style draw a card, play a card game. Another turn you won’t draw cards at all and just save up money. Another turn may take ages as you carefully inch yourself forward into a fortress of a server.

Netrunner - Long Game

Those guys are in for a looooong game. Oh wait!

And then suddenly an unexpected card appears and you just can’t believe it’s over like that. It is not a streamlined experience but a complex Breakbeat Staccato Improv piece in which you are at the instrument. It can feel awkward and daunting at first. But it is also immensely satisfying once you find your jam. And every game feels completely different.

The Netpicks

Among all the praise there are also some negative aspects to Netrunner. I don’t want to go too deep into them at this point since this article is so long as it is. But here are some bullet points:

  • Core Set has TCG leftovers – In all of the expansions you always get 3 copies of every card. That’s because when you build decks, the maximum number of copies of a card you can include is 3. However, the core set is an exception. It contains some cards with just 1 or 2 copies. If you want to build build decks more freely with those cards you need to buy multiple core sets… but then you have to pay quite a sum and end up with a lot of unnecessary cards. It just feels like a step back to the Rare/Uncommon/Common random card pack paradigm of Trading Card Games. Also, it hurts my OCD. The Core Set should have had 3 copies of each card or at least there should have been a “Deckbuilder’s Kit” expansion.

  • Hard to Learn – Asymmetry, Flavor and Strategic Depth are great. But they also mean the game is hard to learn. Both sides play according to different rules. And you need to learn both to play just one side. What was “Grip” and “Stack” again? Why do the same things have different names for Corp and Runners? Even if you get the rules, it can be initially difficult to figure out what to do. Magic’s streamlined game-play meant it was easier to learn. With Netrunner It can take a whole evening and a few games to start figuring things out. There is a good manual and a video tutorial. But a game of this complexity requires an extra mile or two.

  • Long – Some Netrunner games can last over an hour. There can be phases where it feels like neither player is getting anywhere. This causes some difficulties in tournaments. Again, Magic has a certain advantage there. It is shorter and pacing seems to be more consistent.

  • Baroque – I mentioned the elegance of some elements. Not all of them feel as elegant. Some rules and systems feel outright baroque. The Trace system is a good example. One could easily imagine the game working similarly well without it. It could have been a new mechanic in an expansion. It’s not necessarily bad. Once you figure it out, it opens up another strategic dimension. It just doesn’t feel as essential and integrated as other elements and it slows down learning.

  • Catching up can be Daunting – While the meta-game discourse is easy to get into compared to Magic, there is still a certain threshold to it. New expansions are released frequently. As a newcomer, one can get a bit overwhelmed with all the packs you need to buy in order to catch up to the rest of the scene. Again, it feels like getting into a TV series that is well into the 3rd season or so and you have to binge-watch to be able to discuss the current episode with your co-workers. However, unlike Magic, it is actually possible to eventually get there without ruining yourself. And in the end, it’s more of a psychological pressure. Deck-building is far less crucial in Netrunner than in other TCGs, so a newcomer can just play the core set decks and do perfectly well against opponents with a larger card library.

  • Doesn’t Draft so Well – I mentioned Limited formats like Booster Drafts. Those don’t work so well in Netrunner. Which is a bit sad, because I really enjoy them. Fantasy Flight is working on a workaround and I’ve seen some gaming stores coming up with their own solutions. But it’s not a natural way to enjoy this game.

As it’s often the case, the nitpicks make the game actually a bit more attractive to me. I find myself thinking about how to fix the issues. How would I tweak the rules to speed things up? How would I design a good tutorial? Which rules would I explain first? I’m not the only one – some people even build tutorial decks to simplify teaching the game to players.

As already mentioned, I think there are multiple aspects of Netrunner that end up making it especially appealing to Game Designers and Game Design Connoisseurs. It’s asymmetric, complex and deep and yet compact and elegant in some regard but then long and awkward while oozing with theme and flavor. It is casually accessible because you can just buy it in a box like a board game and yet it requires an above-average dedication when learning to play it. And once you start playing it on OCTGN you realize you’re dealing with a beautiful train wreck and enjoying it thoroughly. So chug that Diesel and jack into that rabbit hole. It’s going to be a wild run.

PLEX and Reverse-Free-to-Play

I got a bit into EVE Online recently. I find it interesting since it represents a slightly different way of thinking about online games – one that seems to run against the practices established by World of Warcraft / Farmville at times. One instance in which I was struck by this is in the implementation of the PLEX system.

It is interesting because it deals with two challenges of modern MMO design at once:

  1. The control and leverage of in-game currency trading
  2. The implementation of the free-to-play model

Each of the two comes with a whole array of issues. Linking real money to in-game currency has the potential to wipe out the game’s economy as seen in Diablo 3. Even in the best case, it seems like the emergence of destructive shadow economies such as gold farmers is inevitable. Free-to-play is a related issue – how can you give away parts of the experience for free without dividing the community. Which features should be free, which features should be paid-for? How do you integrate a paywall in a seamless fashion? How do you prevent “pay-to-win”? How do you implement a payment model that doesn’t seem exploitative?

PLEX

PLEX – Pilot Licence Extenstion

In EVE Online, a PLEX is an in-game item that can be bought on the official website for around 20 EUR. It can be traded in-game. It can be also “consumed” for a few account-related services, most notably a 30-day extension of the subscription.

This simple implementation results in an astonishingly complex dynamic which ends up addressing the above challenges.

  • One-Way Trading – The system allows only the purchase of in-game currency, not the sale. This legitimizes part of the otherwise illegal currency trading market without necessary sanctioning destructive activities like gold farming. Of course, gold farming in some form still exists. But with players having a safe and sanctioned way of purchasing currency it is being somewhat marginalized.

  • Self-balancing – In order to turn a PLEX into in-game currency, players need to sell a PLEX on the game’s marketplace. CCP doesn’t actually dictate how much in-game money (”ISK”) you will get for the 20 EUR. The in-game market itself finds a “fair” exchange value for ISK. If players over-use the PLEX system, they flood the market with PLEXes and the in-game price will drop. If players snub PLEXes, they will become rare and therefore worth more.

    PLEX Value

    The value for a PLEX is determined by way of the free market. The collective community decide what is a fair exchange rate.

  • Reverse Free-to-Play – Most importantly, the system allows for a very different kind of Free-to-play which I haven’t seen yet. Usually, Free-to-play is used to lure newcomers into the game and then use the sunk cost of invested time as leverage to convert them into paying customers. PLEX also allows players to play for free but at the very opposite side of the spectrum: experienced players can earn enough money to pay for their monthly subscription with in-game currency.

Let us examine that last notion because it sounds so wonderfully counter-intuitive. After all, conventional wisdom at creating business models is to exploit the Whales – the biggest, most invested fans. Even in an old-school subscription model, there ought to always be that hard-core hardline faction who subscribed at launch and never terminated their account. Those guys pay the bills, right? Why would you give them a freebie?

I have no data to go buy, but I suspect what happens is a similar dynamic we see in music piracy – the guys, who listen to the most pirated music also tend to spend a lot of money on legal music. The are just generally very interested in music. Yes, the EVE pro can chose not to pay for their subscription with Euros. But that means they would have to pay with ISK, and that may be actually the currency they find more valuable.

Because don’t kid yourself, currently a PLEX costs around 600 Million ISK. That’s a substantial amount of in-game money. It is juuuuuust out of reach for an EVE newcomer to get that kind of money in their first month. But even after the first month, throwing away that much hard-earned in-game money is financially crippling. EVE discussion forums regularly point out that grinding out a PLEX with in-game activities is a job with a laughably low wage. It is vastly more time-efficient to earn the required 20 EUR by wiping the floors at the local fast food restaurant.

For me, the penny dropped when I was considering getting a 3-Plex deal on Amazon to pay for another month. I was immediately tempted by converting 2 of the remaining PLEXes into ISK. After all, that huge wad of in-game money would open a lot of possibilities for me. For an EVE enthusiast, a PLEX may be more interesting as a way to get ISK than a way to extend the subscription.

But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t players out there, who won’t try. The same people, who would be otherwise attracted by a regular Free-to-play model regularly come in on 14-day-trial accounts. They are drawn in by the prospect of eventually being able to play the game for free. Most of them fail, of course. But they try hard and over the course of their two weeks they invest so much into the game, many of them are probably converted into subscribers. The PLEX system provides them with a goal to work towards to – something the game of EVE is otherwise lacking.

It is an interesting implementation that I haven’t seen being discussed outside of the game’s community often. It challenges conventional wisdom on how online game business models are supposed to work. It may not work for every game, but it can be a good incentive for designers to think outside of the box.

The Evils of Upfront Payment

Here are some thoughts I had recently. We are quick to demonize Free to Play, myself included. But what we tend to forget that the “traditional” model of upfront payment has severe issues as well. Those issues have been detrimental to how games have developed and are still detrimental to what games are today.

But before we go into it, here is a recent presentation by Jonathan Blow that summarizes quite well the argument.

Mr. Blow does an interesting analogy here. He compares the issues of F2P games to TV dramas from the 70ies and 80ies like Knight Rider, A-Team or The Six Million Dollar Man. He claims that commercial breaks and syndication rules made those shows shallow and exploitative. He claims it took the Cable TV Network HBO, which got rid of syndication and commercials in favor of a subscription model, in order to elevate TV dramas onto a more serious, artistically ambitious level of today. He cites Game of Thrones, The Wire and (I think) Sopranos as examples of “good” modern TV shows. For him those are good dramas because, unlike the previous TV dramas, the world does not reset at the end of each episode. Rather, the story keeps developing from episode to episode which results in events having staying consequences and characters changing over time. Additionally, they resort less to “cheap tricks” like cliffhangers to retain the audience past a commercial break. Finally, they are generally more serious and less campy in nature.

He argues that the early TV dramas are like F2P games. Because of their business model, F2P games are shallow and exploitative. They HAVE to apply certain tricks in order to be commercially viable. Therefore, their ability to be artistically meaningful is inherently diminished.

To be fair, I made a similar argument where I mocked the very idea of TRAUMA being a Zynga-style Facebook game. To some extend I do agree with Mr. Blow.

But there are at least two major issues with Blow’s argument, the first being historical in nature. While HBO has no doubt been an influence, claiming it was HBO that changed TV dramas is a bit of a revisionist history. In fact, a lot of modern TV dramas still do have commercials and are still used for syndication. Even going back to the 90ies it’s easy to point out TV dramas that did not exhibit the exploitative features mentioned by Mr. Blow. Shows like The X-Files or Babylon 5 were syndicated and had commercials. But they had also arcs that spanned multiple seasons and often dealt with serious, mature topics. What changed between the 70ies and today is not so much the business model but the mindset of TV producers and the expectation of the audience. A major catalyst for this change was the TV Series Twin Peaks. It combined the format of a police investigation series with the season-spanning arcs of Soap Opera. It was also directed by a film director which introduced a major shift towards film-like aesthetics and themes. Twin Peaks wasn’t the only reason. However it contributed to a gradual evolution of the genre: the audience started seeking out similar dramas and TV networks started being more comfortable with a smarter and more mature approach to make their series.

Twin Peaks

Twin Peaks and the discovery of nuance and depth – the maturation of TV drama was not brought about by the change of business strategies.

So a particular business model may modulate but doesn’t necessarily completely dictate the potential for artistic value of an individual work. A willing creator ought to be able to use the limitations of it’s medium to bring out it’s potential. As Nietszche put it so well, art is always about “dancing in chains”. The particular issues of the F2P model seem to me to have more to do with the mindset, the goals and aspirations of the people making those games. One could argue that the reason why most F2P games have little artistic ambitions is because it is harder to make those kinds of games artistic. But correlation does not mean causation. It could be just as well the other way around: because there is a lack of successful precedence, making artistic F2P games is hard.

This begs a question – are there perhaps ways in which the “standard” upfront payment model business model for games inhibits artistic expression? We consider this way of monetizing games for granted. What if we have become blind to it’s shortcomings. Or what if we have found ways to deal with the shortcomings so they don’t even occur to us?

This ties neatly into a different analogy that struck me recently – many modern games (and increasingly other media) bear striking resemblances to US-style superhero comics. On the one had, of course, they actually ARE adaptation of said comics. But in a more fundamental way, the way they market themselves and the way storytelling is structured resembles those comics.

Superhero comics were often designed to create an upfront outrage and sensation – a hype. This is perhaps most evident in the way the design of the covers. Quite often the covers actually had a vital panel of the story on the front showing a major, dramatic scene from the current issue. It hinted at some profound changes – important characters dying, marrying or being in incredible situations. This resulted in a “hook” where an audience might be intrigued in finding out how the details of how the incredible event comes to be and how it eventually resolves. Sensationalist content is being front-loaded to create a high anticipation for what is to come.

US Comic Book Covers

SHOCKING BRAND NEW ISSUE!!!

This is, of course, a direct result of the business model. The goal is to make the audience pay for the content before they actually consume the content. In order to do so, comics aim at convincing their audience that the content will be well worth their money. They do so by giving the audience samples of the content and they – of course – don’t pick just any part of the story but the most shocking part.

But this has repercussions for the actual storytelling. Every single story needs such a hook. It needs to be crass and “in your face” so they can put it on the cover. Characters need to follow well established stereotypes so every dummy gets what this is about just with one image from the cover.

More insidiously, there is no need to actually provide anything beyond that front-loaded content. By the time the audience buys into the content, the creator already got all they needed from them. As long they deliver that one money shot that was promised nobody can complain. So the rest of the story can be just unsubstantial dressing. With a lot of those superhero stories, you get the impression that the writers first came up with a hook and then reverse-engineered some asinine rationalizations for why it happened and some half-hearted, stereotypical resolution. Ideally, the resolution would revert everything to normal so they can do it again in the future. Superman died about twice now. Batman broke a spine and fully recovered. How many Robins did we go through now?

This kind of storytelling is not unique for comics. Films rely more and more on hype generated by trailers. Many scenes in movies are nowadays made specifically so they can be put later in a trailer. Do you know that feeling where you leave a cinema and feel like the trailer gave away the whole movie? This may not be because the trailer went overboard, it may be because the movie was made just to create the trailer and the rest was just filler.

This is also related to the issue of sequels. It’s difficult to hook an audience with a new, unknown setting and characters. It’s easy to hook them with a follow-up to a story they are already familiar with.

And no medium is as much plagued with sequels as videogames. Almost every major release nowadays has a number greater than 3 in the title. Because it is much more difficult to sample a piece of interactive experience than to sample a panel from a comic book, videogames rely heavily on the establishment of franchises and genres to provide those hooks necessary for the business model. The rhetoric being always – “it’s like that thing you know but better”. It’s zombies but in space. It’s soldiers but with dogs. It’s that big game from last year but now even larger.

Sequels Q1 2013

Top 10 selling games of Q1 2013. ALL of them are sequels. (source: http://www.vgchartz.com/)

The recent trend of crowdsourcing can be seen as yet another escalation of this model – no longer do we sell games, we sell mere promises of games. We finally got rid of the filler and everything else. We just sell the hooks now. Product may or may not be included in the box.

The results of this market philosophy is profound in any medium. Because what is lost along the way is modestly, subtlety and surprise. All three are difficult and precious in videogames and modern cinema. My best movie experiences were the ones where I had no idea what a movie was about going in. The reason why retro games often feel so fresh is because their modest aesthetics often conceal their richness. Perhaps this is why we are obsessed with avoiding spoilers noways. The only surprises stories provide have become precious and fragile. One sentence can make the added value of actually going to the movie evaporate.

To be fair, I have been harping on comics, movies and games. But it’s worth pointing out that both have their fans, who very much appreciate those very qualities I have been criticizing. I can appreciate them myself. This is analogous to, as Blow mentioned, the people who have fun playing Candy Crush or Farmville. The fact that people like something doesn’t mean that there is nothing wrong with it and we still may want to look for ways to offer more ambitious alternatives.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. As already mentioned, a business model may modulate but not dictate how we utilize a given medium. Going back to comics, the US Superhero comics were just one subset of a much larger genre of comics. European comics, for example, shared many similarities with their US counterparts, but often chose a less upfront appearance. The stories were longer and not necessarily focused that much on a central hook, allowing for more surprise and wonder. Nowadays we have a wide selection of sophisticated graphic novels next to the old superhero mainstays. Superhero comics have evolved themselves.

Tintin Covers

Tintin covers – evocative but a lot more restrained.

So there is hope that games can mature in the same way TV series and comics did. To some extent we already see it happening. Blow mentioned Going Home as an example. I, for one, am looking forward to his own game the Witness.

Shallow and exploitative games are not just the result of a business model. It takes a certain mindset to create them. It takes a different kind of mindset to consciously resist and overcome the corruptive aspects of a particular business model. There are good reasons to be critical of the hubris and exploitation of F2P games. But it is wrong to categorically dismiss the entire idea as evil at it’s core. A similar evil lives in the heart of every kind of economy. Even it it sounds ridiculous at this point, In the future, game designers may find a way to use F2P to pursue more artistic goals.

Modeling Traffic Violation

This is perhaps a bit old but here is an observation I had recently. I have encountered two games that model car traffic violations in different ways. One is GTA, the other one is Euro Truck Simulator 2.

Most of us are familiar with the way GTA models Traffic Violations – players have a wanted-meter represented by a row of stars. Whenever they commit some offense the meter goes up. As the meter rises, more and more police units are chasing after the player trying to arrest them.

Wanted Level in GTA

Wanted level in GTA

In comparison, the way Euro Truck Simulator 2 handles things is a lot simpler. Every time the player commits an offense, they get a message and a sum of money gets automatically deducted from their in-game account. Players don’t need to even stop or interact with the police in any way.

speeding

Running the red light in Euro Truck – a passive message on the Satnav. You don’t even need to stop.

So in GTA, dealing with the punishment for an offense is almost a game in itself. A player might be doing a mission, accidentally commit an offense and the mission would spiral out of control into a spontaneous cops-and-robbers chase across town. For many players, this is a main draw of the game. They often actually exploit this system to challenge themselves to survive the ever increasing onslaught of police units. The punishment for the crime is actually not really a punishment – it is often a source of fun and enjoyment. Euro Truck Simulator 2, on the other hand, minimizes any intrusions in the core gameplay of driving a truck from point A to point B. The punishment is delivered passively and discreetly. Players don’t have to act upon it in other ways that actually prevent it. Also, the punishment is real – there is nothing fun or engaging about losing money in that game.

But there is more. You see, GTA doesn’t ACTUALLY model traffic violations. The only way players can get into troubles is by crashing into a police car or running over a pedestrian. Cashing into other cars, running red lights, driving to fast or on the wrong side of the road is never punished – even if there is a police car present and watching. Euro Truck Simulator 2 does pay attention to all these things no matter if there is a police car involved or not.

Here, we see a reversal of philosophies. GTA chooses not to simulate ordinary traffic violations, presumably in order to maintain a free-roaming sandbox feel of the game. In Euro Truck Simulator 2, driving according to the rules IS the game. It is a source of enjoyment and an expected feature in a simulation title.

The reason why the same aspect of traffic violations is seen as a feature in one game and a hindrance in another is, because the two games are trying to convey different experiences. GTA wants to put players into the shoes of a Hollywood criminal – always on the run from the police while standing above the pedantic laws of commute traffic. Euro Truck Simulator 2 wants to put you in the shoes of a regular truck driver, who lives in a world governed by traffic and it’s laws.

Finally, it is interesting to note that, Euro Truck Simulator 2 does stray into wish-fulfillment in two aspects:

  • As already mentioned, the payment for traffic ticket occurs automatically and without any interaction. In reality, dealing with the paperwork is a nuisance it itself, often more aggravating and punishing than the actual sum to be paid. Euro Truck Simulator 2 streamlines this process to an extent many of us would probably wish for. You get a message on your Satnav and just keep on trucking.

  • On a more serious note, the monetary punishment of traffic offenses becomes less of a setback, the more money players have. In the end-game, players earn so much money from AI drivers, they can actually chose to completely disobey any traffic laws and live the GTA life. This results in the accidental rhetoric that wealth allows a person to set themselves above the law. Or more polemically – that wealth leads to crime.

I find it noteworthy that even though both games could be categorized as “open-world driving”, they follow very different design strategies. There is no obvious superior strategy here, it really depends on what kind of experience a designer wants to convey. But it’s good to see a game like Euro Truck Simulator 2 in order to remind yourself that certain aspects of a simulation can and maybe should be abstracted away or at least solved differently. On a closing note, the realistic portrayal of traffic rules resulted in far more uncanny game / IRL confusion situations for me. When driving in the car after longer trucking sessions, I often caught myself slipping into the Euro Truck Simulator 2 mindset when at the wheel of an actual car.

Request: UI examples for making people work together?

Here is an interesting UI issue I’ve encountered developing a prototype: what is a good and easy way to make AI characters perform things together. I’ve crowd-sourced this question on Twitter to look for examples in other games and realized that the question requires some explanation. So let me clarify:

There are numerous games where you control not a single character but a whole group of characters: Lemmings, XCOM, Starcraft, Pikmin, Final Fantasy, etc. What I noticed it that most of the time, the kind of orders you can give to your team members are given to one single team member at a time. The interfaces are great at telling guy A to do X and then guy B to do Y. What I’m looking for are interfaces for making guy A and guy B do X together. Here are some examples and how they do and do not qualify:

  • XCOM – Am obvious example of a game that lets you control a team but doesn’t have any orders that are done together. You just have guys just doing their own things simultaneously. The closest the game gets at cooperation is when one soldier heals another. But even in those cases – the person, who is being healed actually doesn’t have to do anything to cooperate. You can potentially heal a teammate WHILE they are running or shooting at somebody.

  • Pikmin – Pikmin does have activities that require multiple units to cooperate. Most notably, you need to send out a certain number of Pikmin to carry around heavy objects together. Technically, you still give orders to individual Pikmin. It’s just that they do nothing until a certain minimum number of Pikmin have been assigned to a task. The reason why the example is still not useful in my case is because the roles within a task and the Pikmin themselves are interchangeable. When carrying around large objects for every Pikmin within that sub-group does the same thing. Also, you can’t discern or select individual Pikmin – not very well at least. So you would have a hard time to use that interface to staff a rowing team where you need pick the strongest of your guys to do the rowing and the lightest of your guys to be the coxswain.

  • Starcraft – Starcraft let you identify and select individual units. In most cases the orders you give don’t require cooperation, though. There are a few exceptions. Some units can build and repair buildings together. Again, as in Pikmin, Starcraft doesn’t actually discern individual roles in a task either. So when multiple units repair something, they are all doing the same generic repairing action. Units don’t depend on each other or interact with each other when doing a task.

Examples of Activities

To clarify the problem, here are some examples for cooperative tasks that might be difficult to model in the above games:

  • Climbing a Wall – Climbing a wall usually requires the cooperation of two people. One person does the climbing while another person belays them. Who is doing the climbing and who belays them is very important and should be a thing that the player has control over. More importantly, throughout a mountaineering expedition, who climbs and who belays changes constantly. So you need a flexible interface for being able to decide quickly. This is actually the thing I was trying to model when I stumbled over the problem. I already previously had other activities where I didn’t necessarily NEED cooperation but wished I had an easy UI solution to allow for it.

    One person climbing, one person belaying

    You know, for all the climbing that you do in games, there is an astonishing lack of belaying.

  • A Road Trip – Usually, on a long road trip, there is one person driving, one person taking care of navigation and the rest (if there is any) is resting in the back seats. As with climbing, the roles here change constantly throughout the trip. As with climbing, who does what can have important consequences for group dynamics and how the trip plays out.

    rebecca_black_friday_back_seat

    Which seat can I taaaaaaake?

  • Surgery – During a Surgery there are multiple roles to fulfill. There is a Senior Surgeon, Resident Surgeons, an Anesthesiologists, a Scrub Nurse, Circulating Nurses, Students etc. On especially long and complicated operations these can change throughout an individual operation. But more often, the roles just change from surgery to surgery. A Student on one major operation may end up being the Resident Surgeon on a minor operation. Who does what is essential and often lies at the core of the many medical TV dramas.

    1234670116pre

    If I learned anything from TV it’s that one of the most important factors for the outcome of a surgery is not so much competence but who sleeps with whom.

  • A Construction Site – Construction sites have multiple people fulfilling multiple roles. Machines need to be operated. Things need to be carried, dug out, filled in, painted, erected, demolished, etc. Because those activities are usually heavy duty, a lot of them are most efficiently and safely performed in groups – like carrying heavy things or filling a sack with sand. Also, the roles constantly change. You don’t have just that one guy, who always carries things. He might be unloading a truck first but then move on to erect a scaffolding. Evolving priorities and individual skills are important and have to be considered when deleting tasks.

    Construction Workers

    Whatever those guys are doing, it doesn’t look like a one-man-job.

  • Hanging a Picture on a Wall – There are multiple examples for relatively simple, everyday activities that require at least two people to cooperate. Hanging a picture on a wall requires one person to hold the picture while another checks if it is level and draws in marks to where to hammer in the nails. Or you’ll have one person carrying a heavy item while another holds open the doors for them. Setting up tents or folding blankets – all of these require people to work together and often end up being relationship-forming events in film or literature. Consider the cliche of the how young couple renovating a room and splashing each other with paint during a romantic good times montage.

    334141543_640

    “Teeheehee! We are so in love with each other! Look at us making a huge mess.”

  • All of these are very straight-forward, common examples of cooperation which are surprisingly under-represented in games. Interestingly, they often end up being catalysts for social interaction. So modelling them in a game should be an attractive thing to try. It is surprising that we apparently don’t have that many examples of games trying this. Instead games either show them from an individual’s perspective (you snipe while the AI does the spotting for you) or they limit themselves to model actions that don’t require two people to directly interact. IThis simple UI issue might be actually related to why games tend to have a rather autistic view on social modeling.

    Design Patterns

    However, people were so nice to point out some titles to me. With the examples I already had, here are some design patterns I noticed that frequently come up when games at least try to model some form of cooperative interaction. There is no ideal solution so far. But each of the patterns has it’s own strengths and weaknesses:

  • Jobs – Some games seem to solve interaction by defining jobs for individual team members. World of Tanks, for example, lets you crew a vehicle with multiple roles: Commander, Gunner, Driver, Radio Operator and Loader. It displays a list of slots that you can fit crew members into. This is generally a useful design pattern that can be applied to a lot of cases. However, it comes with a set of expectations. It already assumes that you always want to drive a tank. World of Tanks is not a game where driving a tank is one of multiple activities you can do. It also assumes that in most cases the crew for a tank tends to stay the same for a long time – you will change crews perhaps every half an hour or so at most. So the process is awkward – you select a crew slot, you dismiss a crew member, confirm a dialogue box, select the empty crew slot, select “Recruit”, chose a new person from the barracks. There are multiple clicks and dialogue boxes necessary to make even the simplest changes. To change crew members every minute, you would need something more streamlined.

    8245822162_f2874253ee

    Defining a team in World of Tanks. Comprehensible but inflexible and somewhat cumbersome.

  • Waiting Mode – I’ve seem some games that allow two people to cooperate using a system designed to control individuals. They do so by creating intermediate commands. You put one team member into a sort of “waiting mode”. Then you command another team member to walk to and “team up” with them. Pikmin is an obvious example. Your Pikmin gather around an object and wait there until enough Pikmin have gathered to carry it. I think I’ve seen a similar pattern in a Tactical JRPG, but I can’t recall which one (can anyone help me out here?). This works quite well to infuse cooperative elements into an otherwise individual-based UI. Unlike the Job-pattern it allows players to formulate tasks and jobs ad-hoc rather than the system always assuming you do one thing over and over again. The reason why I’m wary with using this pattern is that because the it’s essentially a crutch to have cooperative elements in a UI not designed with them in mind. So involves this awkward 2-step process. It necessarily creates a situation where team members stand around doing nothing while you navigate another person in place to join them. It can be also difficult to visualize this and explain to the player what they need to do in order to complete the process.

    331891

    Pikmin team up to carry things. Quite flexible but communicating the requirements to the player can be difficult.

  • Stations – Another design pattern that I’ve sometimes seen is to define jobs and tie them to physical places. FTL is an excellent, recent example for this. You see the schematic view of a spaceship. Each room of the ship corresponds to a job. Whoever sits in the cockpit becomes the pilot. Whoever sits in the engineering room becomes the engineer. The game often revolves about constantly delegating crew members to different tasks as the situation evolves and priorities change. This is certainly a more flexible and streamlined pattern than the Job-pattern in World of Tanks. However, it also comes with a set of expectations. Because it is related to the Job-pattern, it expects certain jobs to be always present. You always fly a ship in FTL. It also expects a 1:1 correspondence with places and activities. For example: How would you model an away mission where you can either talk to an alien, scan them with a Tricorder or shoot them?

    FTL

    Two guys fend off a boarding party in the weapons room while the pilot flies the ship and an engineer keeps the shields up. FTL does feature some flexible cooperation but activities are tied to the layout of the ship.

  • MOAR EXAMPLES PLZ!

    I have an idea how I might be able to solve this issue which I need to try out first. But in the meantime I’m still looking for examples. So please, if you know any game that have you control a team of people that performs tasks together, let me know. Additional examples or variations in the three above patterns are certainly welcome as well!

Ender’s Game – A Manual

For some time now, a lot of people suggested I should read Ender’s Game. The book was a sort of a puzzle to me. It seems to have influenced a lot of people I know from the Anglo-American culture. Most of them seem to have read it in their youth. Yet I never had contact with the book myself. I was somewhat put off by the author’s recent attitudes but I have quite some appetite for Sci-Fi and with the upcoming movie I decided to give it a go. I did not like it, to say the least.

Hitler’s Game

It seems I’m not the only one either. Doing some research I found a few interesting articles. John Kessel did a pretty good job at highlighting the underlying morality of the book. The book conveys and holds on to the idea that we should judge the morality of an action by it’s intention. According to this, killing somebody is ok if you sincerely didn’t like or mean it. The book ultimately goes as far as absolving genocide. Using this logic, the main character gets to be a murderer, later even a mass-murderer and yet he remains a saint and to some extent even the victim himself. It is the logic of child abuse: “It hurts me more than it hurts you. You will thank me for this some day.”

Ender as Hitler

“Mein Führer, the gate is down”

Another article by Elaine Radford is more direct. Pointing out similar notions, she goes one step further and suggests the book is supposed to evoke sympathy for Adolf Hitler. She finds some uncanny similarities between Hitler’s and Ender’s Biography. Together with the idea Intiention-based Morality and the fact that the books ends with Ender pretty much wiping out an entire Species, they create a pretty convincing interpretation of the text. Indeed, quotes like these, used in context of the justification of murder, could have easily come from the Führer himself:

Our genes won’t let us decide any other way. Nature can’t evolve a species that hasn’t a will to survive.

Dr. Atom Bomb

Ender in the Sim

“Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

While the outrageous Hitler-Theory has surprisingly a lot going for it, I personally don’t subscribe to it, if only for Godwinian reasons. Instead, I picked up another parallel to WW2. To some extent, the events depicted in the book mirror closely and justify the role of the United States in the Pacific War. A theme repeated over and over again is that of a justified, aggressive retaliation against an aggressor. Ender personally encounters two bullies in the story. In both cases he decides his only reasonable reaction is to beat them up so badly that they will never dare to threaten him again. He ends up killing his oppressors in both cases. The book depicts him walking away in both cases with a clean conscience. These two events echo the large-scale confrontation in the book. Earth has been attacked by evil aliens in the past. So humans sent out a fleet to attack the aliens at their homeworld to prevent more attacks. Ender plays a decisive role in the struggle. His solution is to blow up the alien’s home planet, wiping out the entire species. Everybody approves. It is the only way.

The parallels to Pear Harbor and the subsequent war between the U.S. and Japan are uncanny, right down to the use of Atom Bombs. Ender has at his disposal a secret weapon called “Dr. Device” (short for Molecular Disruption Device) which has the ability to blow up things in chain reactions. He eventually uses this to destroy the home planet. Ender’s Game therefore makes the argument that the use of the Atom Bomb against civilians was justified. After all, they started it.

What struck me is how manipulative and constructed the book is at making that argument. Never mind that it’s the Humans, who are the aggressors in this war, somehow we are constantly led to believe that this is Humanity’s last chance at survival. A diplomatic solution is out of the question due to the convenient fact that the alien’s minds are too alien to recognize us as living beings. And even though this is an offensive war, in every single battle Ender is out-numbered. Who planned this war anyway? The killer is constantly depicted as the victim, even as he is committing genocide. The kicker is when the aliens actually THANK him afterwards for killing them all and make him their post-mortem ambassador. I’m not making this up.

Applied to the Pacific War, this sets up a rather disturbing view of that tragically ambivalent confrontation. Even more disturbingly, the more recent military involvement of the U.S. follows similar patterns. Ender’s Game today remains as topical as ever. It almost seems to have become a manual.

Highest Grade Cardboard

Dude

… except for Ender. Ender is always awesome at everything.

Ender himself is as artificial and constructed as the war he is fighting in. The story starts when he is six. That would put him into the 1st grade. Yet, due to the wonder of eugenics (the Master Race says hi), he is super-intelligent. He is so intelligent, in fact, he can think himself out of physical threats. Two times he confronts enemies stronger and more trained than him. In both cases his pure intellect overcomes his lack of physical strength or experience. Throughout the entire story, he NEVER falters. Ender never stumbles. Never makes a mistake. I assume as a baby, he never pooped his pants. He never crawled on fours, one day he just figured out how to walk upright without even trying. Ender never has to face limits to his abilities. The only issue he apparently faces is jealousy. As Elane Radford puts it, he’s made of highest grade cardboard.

Superficially, this makes him simply a shallow and artificial character. Looking more deeply, as a book for young people this is a really shitty role model. I mean, sure, Ender represents everything you WISHED you could be when you were still in school and being bullied yourself. In this regard, the allure of the book is unmistakable. In the long run, a human character who learns his limits, who learns to accept himself in spite of them and learns to ask others for help would be a more valuable role-model to deal with the realities of growing up without becoming an asshole or committing suicide. I’ve been thinking a lot about female and male representation in media. Female gender roles are a can of worms by themselves. I feel there is a growing need to start discussing male gender roles as well.

Suffering by Intelligent Design

Ender's Superiors

“He’s just masturbating again. Do we really need to watch him ALL the time?”

Another detail that struck me is the odd relationship between Ender and his superiors. Every chapter of the book is introduced by a discussion of Ender’s superiors. Apparently they are observing him all the time and taking an insane amount of care about every detail of his waking life. We are led to believe that every moment of Ender’s life is carefully orchestrated by benevolent forces. Yet the results of all this is an awful lot of suffering for Ender. Even the bullies Ender has to kill have been deliberately given free reign. All of this is an elaborate set-up, a challenge. The idea is that Ender has to go through these complicated tests in order to become that special kind of person they need. Ender has to go through all this hardship not in spite of being so good but BECAUSE he is so good – because he can take it.

Some of the above authors mentioned how this is basically the depiction (and justification) of abusive parents. I agree this is one possible interpretation. I would also suggest another: it is the analogy and an answer to the theological Problem of Evil. One issue most religions have to deal with is why bad things happen to good people. Why would our omipresent and omniponent maker still allow his most devoted followers to be exposed to suffering and pain. Ender’s Game presents an answer: it is a test and part of a bigger plan. In effect, an iteration of Irenaean theodicy.

But then the book never seems to follow up on that notion because Ender never seems to actually change. He comes in as a superman and he leaves as a superman. All of his training doesn’t amount to much. He passes all the test with flying colors, suggesting he already knew what was necessary all along. The lack of payoff makes all of the challenges look weirdly sadistic. And there is always that fridge horror of the other students. What happened to all the other students that went to a similar ordeal as Ender but never became the war heroes they’ve been training for? Where is the divine justice in their suffering?

Worshiping Entitlement

Ender Flaming

Ender’s Game is what Joffrey would have written if he actually wrote Game of Thrones.

At the core of why the book is so incredibly popular among young people lies what I think is probably the most repulsive aspect of the book. It is essentially the worship and glorification of entitlement. It is an artificial world in which the rampart ID of one arrogant teenage prick is sculpted outward and extended to shape the entire world around him. Ender doesn’t just think he is a teenage superhuman genius and the center of the universe, he actually IS all of this. He actually is able to see through everybody’s intention. The adults actually DO make the world intentionally unfair and biased against him. All his bullies and enemies ARE actually just jealous of him. And in the end, everybody actually ends up depending on him because he is the best.

Again, in times of aggressive internet trolling the novel comes out depressingly topical. In one part of the book, Ender’s equally brilliant siblings realize at age 11 or so that the world political climate is destabilizing. They decide to – I kid you not – become rulers of the world by posting on internet forums. The best thing is – they succeed.

Internet Kid

… the Pinky, the Pinky and the Brain, Brain, Brain, Brain, Brain – NARF!

Of course, the book was written in 1985, at least 10 years or so before the Internet evolved into the a form resembling what we know today. It is nonetheless striking how spot-on it is in catering to the contemporary forms of adolescent megalomania. It is also noteworthy how the Internet in the book deviates from how the Internet turned out. In the book, kids need to figure out a way to get adult credentials before posting online. Otherwise they wouldn’t be able to post in serious discussion forums. Today, most of us would be glad if a system was in place to filter out comments by underage posters. On the other hand the unrestricted mingling of anonymous posters led to a dramatic deflation of the importance of the internet as a platform for serious political discourse. It’s teh Internetz, LOL. But the idea that kids with so little experience in writing and politics could still, by their sheer wits, rise above all of the other, more experienced authors is not only ridiculous bit also perfectly reflects the motivation of an average entitled teenage internet dipshit. Again, Ender’s Game proves to have become a manual.

_________________________________________________________________________________________________

Ender’s Game is for kids. Kids seem to love Ender’s Game. But Ender’s Game is also full of seriously problematic content. From straight political propaganda to self-rigorous morale to self-destructive role-models and the cultivation of entitlement. It saddens me that this is one of the most popular Science Fiction novels of our time. It also saddens me how topical it is today.

Lunar Flight – A Benchmark for Oculus Rift

Partly inspired by my previous experience woth the Oculus Rift, I decided to get the Development Kit to do more experiments with the system. I am still very excited about the hardware. I think it’s safe to say that this might be the singe most important gaming peripheral since the Wiimote. Before developing anything I went on a binge of demos and games with Oculus support in order to understand the capabilities of the device. One of my favorites so far turned out to be Lunar Flight.

Lunar Flight is the flight simulator of a lunar lander not unlike the Apollo-era LEM. However, instead of landing on the Moon from orbit you fly around on the Moon from location to location. The game features realistic physics and controls. For example, if you start turning your spacecraft, it will continue turning due to the lack of air resistance. You will have to stop any rotation by applying counter-thrust. I noticed the game some time ago on Scott Manley’s channel but I was somewhat put off by it due to it’s rough aesthetics. The game changed quite a bit since then and it was the Oculus Rift implementation that completely won me over eventually.

The game received a major overhaul to work with the Rift. Most of the menu system was re-mapped to an Oculus-friendly 3D menu. The 2D cockpit was replaced with a 3D model. The combination of the right kind of experience and a great deal polish resulted in what I think is a benchmark for Oculus Rift implementations.

Nausea-Free

One of the biggest stumbling blocks for the success of the Oculus Rift will be the nausea. Most current games induce a surprising amount of motion-sickness. When what your eyes see doesn’t match up with what your sense of balance is telling you, your brain starts suspecting you are drunk or poisoned and decides to evacuate the contents of your stomach just to be sure. This is exactly what happens when people get sea sick. Some people already reported having similar problems playing FPS games in 2D monitors. The Rift exacerbates this minority issue to a platform-defining criteria. Everybody gets sick on the Rift eventually. Game designers need to learn how to avoid it. Lunar Flight shows one solution. It lets you fly a rather slow-moving vehicle. There are no sudden accelerations. You can pitch and roll the lander, but you don’t have to. There are actually different strategies you can apply to fly it. You can decide for yourself how adventurous you want the flight to be. The result is a very smooth, nausea-free experience. With most games, I cannot play more than 20 minutes or so before feeling sick. Lunar Flight I was able to comfortably play for over 4 hours at a time – my longest continuous Rift experience so far. And I could have easily continued playing.

Taking Advantage of the Cockpit – Information

Lunar Flight - Map

Straight-forward and natural: The map is right there.

The cockpit demonstrates a very effective interface design principle when using the Rift: Additional information can be placed in space around the player instead of hiding it in a menu. So for example, instead of having a map that you would bring up by pushing a button, you can just display a map on a virtual screen in the cockpit to the left. When you want to look at the map, you just turn his head to the left to look at the screen. You never leave the context of the game. More importantly, it feels straight-forward and natural. The map is right there. You don’t have to learn buttons or anything. A similar system was already employed in the game Far Cry 2. But it’s really the head-tracking of the Rift that knocks this out of the park.

Taking Advantage of the Cockpit – Interaction

Lunar Flight - Buttons

PUSH ALL THE BUTTONS!

Another interesting feature of the cockpit in Lunar Flight the inteactivity. The cockpit features buttons you can actually press. You highlight them by looking at them. You press them by pushing a catch-all “interact” button on the gamepad. This is a good way of mapping a large amount of functions on a limited input device like a controller. The reason why this is important in the case of the Rift is because wearing the headset, you just can’t see a keyboard. It is therefore impractical to map all those functions on different keyboard keys like most simulators tend to. You could hide those functions in a menu structure, but this would pull players out of the context of the game. Using the cockpit as a “virtual controller” is a smart solution that ends up feeling as if you are actually in the cockpit PUSHING ALL THE BUTTONS. The concept does have some limitations, though. Turning your head to look straight at a tiny button takes a moment – a moment where you won’t be looking ahead. So this solution won’t work for very time-dependent functions. Using this to refuel your spacecraft or selecting the next mission while on the landing pad is perfect. Activating a scanning device while desperately trying to maintain a hovering position just a couple of meters over the surface can be a bit awkward.

Menu

Lunar Flight - Menu

It won’t win visual design awards, but at least it actually exists and it works.

Finally, it wanted to stress out the importance of a menu designed for use with the Rift. Most games I’ve seen have been retro-fitted for use with the Rift. They usually end up projecting their previous 2D menu on a plane in front of the player’s eyes. This hardly ever works. The menus have been often designed for much higher resolutions. Fonts are rarely legible. A workaround some developers use is to move the plane closer to the face of the player. This makes fonts more legible but players end up seeing just a part of the menu at a time – like operating a GUI trough a telescope. The developer of Lunar Lander actually went the extra mile and re-designed the most important menus to work with the resolution of the Rift. They are somewhat an eye-sore but they actually work.

One might think that it should be no problem just to take off the Rift for a second to click on a button from time to time. However, this is impractical for multiple reasons. Putting the Rift on takes a couple of seconds. The lenses have a sweet spot that you have to find. You need to pull on the straps for a short while until you’re all set. It is certainly more complicated that donning a pair of headphones. Additionally, I’m quite short-sighted and I’m using the Rift without glasses. After removing the Rift I still need to put on my glasses before I can see anything. Finally, a lot of games actually require you to use the Rift in “Extended Mode”. This means that the Rift works as an extension of the desktop rather than a copy of what you see on your monitor. So the menu won’t be even visible on the monitor while you are using the Rift.

The lack of a Rift-friendly menu ends up spoiling a surprising amount of games for me, including high-profile titles like Hawken or War Thunder. In this context, Lunar Flight sets yet another benchmark.

Overall, I thunk Lunar Flight is an obligatory experience for anybody interested in developing games for the Rift. It is by no means a perfect game. But it plays to the strengths of the peripheral while avoiding it’s most serious pitfalls. It shows though-provoking ideas that I hope will be explored further in upcoming Rift games. Finally, it also goes beyond a quick tech demo – it is also an engrossing and enjoyable. It’s a proof of concept not only for the technology but for the first time also for the complete experience.

About

The Game Design Scrapbook is a second blog of group of three game designers from Germany. On our first blog, Game Design Reviews we describe some games we played and point out various interesting details. Unfortunately, we found out that we also need some place to collect quick and dirty ideas that pop into our minds. Hence, welcome to Game Design Scrapbook. You will encounter wild, random rantings. Many of then incoherent. Some of them maybe even in German. If you don't like it, you might enjoy Game Design Reviews more.

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