My first podcast appearance

I wanted to let you know that I had my very first podcast interview, and you can listen to it here, on the Critical-Gaming Network Blog!

KirbyKid had reached out to me a few weeks ago to see if I'd talk with him about my game Flydrill and the ideas about its mass appeal, or lack thereof, which I'd written about in an earlier blog post. I've been spending a lot of time lately listening to podcasts featuring conversations between indie developers, particularly my favorite, Infinite Ammo, so I thought it could be fun to try being in one myself. :)

And yeah, it was fun! I talked about Flydrill, and a bit about The Love Letter, and even a little bit of ranting on the attitudes behind typical free-to-play monetization schemes, which hopefully no one will quote me on. :p

The entire podcast is two hours long, but you can hear me starting at 04:35, and then snippets throughout until the interview segment concludes at 30:00. KirbyKid has interleaved interviews between myself and a mobile-social game developer named Matt Fairchild, so as he switches back and forth I end up representing the more gameplay-focused, "indie" side of things. Fine with me! :) It's funny hearing myself in a podcast - I used to hate hearing my own voice recorded and played back, but now I'm just intrigued by the unfamiliarity of it. Actually, I was very curious to listen so I could find out what I had actually said, because I had forgotten most of it! :p

Here's a quote from the podcast to give you a sense of it:

On the other hand, Alex is very concerned with gameplay, or games as art. He's focused on conveying information, guiding the player, and building systems that have meaningful interaction without cluttering the experience with leveling up, experience points, and other hooks that complicate what games are. Remember, there are common gameplay features that, when taken to an extreme, work against games as art. It seems that Alex is very aware of this balancing act in game design.

Unfortunately, KirbyKid has announced that he won't be doing any more podcasts, only three episodes in, because he can't afford to spend so much time on them. Well, I know how that is. But it's too bad.

Have a listen to my first podcast appearance!


Interactive Jane Austen Novels

Versu is an interactive storytelling platform just released today by Linden Lab.

Basically, I see it as Chris Crawford's Storytron, except done right. It's a collaboration between IF author Emily Short and AI expert Richard Evans, combining written stories with sophisticated character and drama AI. So far it's basically interactive Jane Austen novels (seriously!), but it can support any genre of fiction, and more stories (and the tools for making them) are on the way.

You can read Emily Short's description of it and see some quotes from the Linden Lab CEO Rod Humble if you want to learn more.

I first came across this when it was demoed at GDC (before LittleTextPeople was acquired by Linden Lab) and I've been eagerly waiting for it to come out. Unfortunately, right now it's only available for iPad, and I don't have one. :( But it sounds like it will be coming out for other platforms eventually.

I recently started working at Linden Lab myself, and this project is a big reason why. Can you imagine something more revolutionary being done right now? :D

So, here we have interactive experiences fueled on storytelling, not gameplay. Sign me up.

Oh, and I almost forgot - Happy Valentine's Day! :) No new game from me this year, sorry (I went for something a bit more... personal). You could always just play The Love Letter again... ;)


Water it down and burn it

Wow, I'm posting a lot more often than normal! I guess you can thank my new job at Linden Lab for that. :) We'll see how long this keeps up...

As far as I can tell, there are two types of games that people play for a long time: games that water down content and stretch it out through RPG grinding or FarmVille-style appointment systems, and games where you create. Okay, I guess there's a third - games with evergreen content complexity, like Triple Town, but these are very rare and I don't know of any very successful online games based on that principle.

World of Warcraft is the obvious example for games with lots of content, and even when it's watered down there is still a ton of it and it's very expensive to develop. FarmVille is an example that combines a thin layer of grinding with a thin layer of creativity. Minecraft is an example that combines a layer of grinding (harvesting resources) with a much deeper system of creation.

In all of these examples there is a social element as well, which is essential (even in Minecraft, minimal as it is), but even non-games have it (chat clients, forums, social networking sites) so I won't dwell on it here. Just keep in mind that the longest-lasting games tend to be social in some way.

In games with a creative element, like FarmVille and Minecraft, the grinding gameplay serves to give structure and ease the player into the creative play. As the player begins to tire of the grinding gameplay, the creative part is there to take up the slack. But the initial gameplay structure is essential to provide that hook and that ramp into the later experience.

In games where the creation experience is separate from the gameplay experience, there will be some players who only do creation and many more who only do gameplay. In this case you could set it up so the creators are providing gameplay content to the players. However, without watering the content down (with grinding), it is likely that the players will burn through content much faster than creators can create it. And because playing is separate from creation, most players who burn through gameplay will not transition to creation - they'll just leave.

I've imagined making a game where you create platformer levels like in N or Super Meat Boy, and earn points when other people play these levels and rate them highly. I still think that would be a cool idea, but I'm realizing that it would not work very well as an ongoing community experience. I doubt that anyone would spend months playing Super Meat Boy, as good as it is, while millions of people play games like FarmVille or World of Warcraft for a very long time. There's just not enough gameplay in a platformer to keep people going on level design alone.

But you could imagine a game where people create watery RPG content for other people, and where the creation and gameplay aspects are connected enough that there is a steady flow of players becoming creators. If you connect the creation and gameplay in a sloppy way, the two could collapse into each other, with people exploiting creation to farm gameplay progression (creating easy dungeons with gold everywhere and no monsters, for example). There could also be problems with finding appropriate content for players at various levels. But it should be possible to tune everything so it works as a self-sustaining ecosystem of playing and creating and moving between the two.

What would that look like?


Linden Lab and LEGO

Now that I'm working at Linden Lab, I'm spending a lot of time thinking about creativity software and discussing ideas, and sometimes I'll even come up with something worth sharing on my blog! :) Just keep in mind that this is me talking, and what I say here is not an official pronouncement from Linden Lab.

Talking with a coworker at lunch today, I realized that LEGO is a perfect example of sort of "shared creative spaces" that Linden Lab is trying to make. When it comes to LEGO, playing is creating, there is very little room on the pyramid devoted to pure consumption, shopping, or decorating - it quickly ramps on to full-blown creation. There is also very little inaccessible expert territory at the top - even the amazingly ambitious stuff that people create feels accessible, like you could have done that too if you put enough time into it. That's what "high skill floor, low skill ceiling" means.

And why is this? A significant part of it is that everyone understands LEGO bricks and how they fit together. Very little ramp-up is required to become fluent. Easy to learn, and well, pretty easy to master too. And yet it is not trivial. You can do so much with it, both in terms of building things and in terms of playing with the things that you build. It's important to remember that make-believe play with and within the things you build are also a significant part of the experience of LEGO. Most kids will spend as much time acting out imaginary adventures and battles as they do building them! Of course, different people will focus on different things - I happened to be more of a builder than a storyteller, but I still liked that my creations stood as evocative worlds that could imply stories or scenarios, whether or not I actually acted them out.

LEGO also excels at making the creation process fun in itself, as gameplay. I realized this when introducing a six-year-old to LEGO for the first time, examining my own experience with a game designer's eye. I discovered that building something with LEGO, especially building a model from instructions, is very similar to playing a hidden object game, in terms of the skills exercised.

To read LEGO instructions, which have no words, is to play a spot-the-difference game between the image of each step and the next, to see what has changed, identify the pieces involved, and imagine how you will put them there. You might not think that takes much skill at all, but you would be amazed at the performance gap between a six-year-old who has never seen LEGO instructions before and a twenty-something-year-old with an entire childhood of LEGO experience.

Similarly, once you know what pieces you want, you must play a hidden object game where you visually pick out the specific pieces from a cluttered jumble of dozens if not hundreds of other pieces, recognizing them from any angle, partially obscured or otherwise. I could see those pieces like an eagle spotting a mouse from high above the savannah, while my six-year-old apprentice took much longer, often to the point of giving up and asking for me to help.

Then of course there is the mechanical process of snapping the pieces together, which is not very sophisticated, as far as gameplay goes (though try teaching a robot to do that!) but is still a skill to be learned, and has a very satisfying payoff (click!).

This all may seem trivial, and not worth thinking about, but when you are making a digital game, you don't get any of this for free. Dragging an image onto another image is not equivalent to mechanically snapping in a plastic spear into a plastic hand, and choosing a brick from a menu is not equivalent to searching for a brick in a jumbled pile on the floor. I think it's very much worth thinking about.

The interesting thing is, while we're making comparisons with spot-the-difference and hidden-object gameplay, I actually find building with LEGO more fun than the computer games that cater exclusively to this activity. To me, searching for a LEGO piece that I can actually then use to build with is so much more interesting and rewarding than searching for a random piece of junk in a list in a hidden object scene that I will end up using in an arbitrary puzzle in a generic mystery adventure story. I think creative tools can be more fun than those things we call strictly "games", at least for people like me, and I don't think we should shoot for anything less.