Category Archives: Game Industry

What Can Game Developers Learn From The 2016 Presidential Election?

Like many other people, I was shocked when Donald Trump was elected President of the United States. I considered him to be too inexperienced and divisive for the position for him to have any real chance of winning the election.  Even when the polls showed the race to be tightening up in the days before the election, I thought that Hillary Clinton had enough electoral votes locked up for a landslide victory.  I was so sure that Hillary’s win was a foregone conclusion, that rather than spending Tuesday night watching the election results, I decided to go see Doctor Strange instead.  However, when I exited the movie theater, it seemed I had been transported to an alternate universe, because it was Trump who had won by a landslide of electoral votes.

Pundits and Democratic leaders from Michael Moore to Bernie Sanders blamed Hillary’s loss on the fact that Trump did a far better job of appealing to the concerns of the angry and embittered middle-class workers of the Rust Belt states who felt abandoned by the Democrats. Worse, everyone who supported Donald Trump was painted by the Hillary campaign as being stupid, bigoted and mysogynistic. Such name-calling did not attract any Trump supporters to Hillary’s side, but what it did do was make Trump supporters hesitant to admit in polls that they were supporting Trump, and so the polling data was off.  Finally, Trump supporters were more enthusiastic about their candidate than were Hillary supporters, who didn’t work as hard at bringing other people to the voting booth with them.

A couple of days after the election, game journalist Dean Takashashi asked in a Facebook post, “What does/should the game industry do in a post-election Trump world?” and I answered with some lessons from the election that might apply to game development.  Here is an expanded version of my reply:

  • Try to meet to the needs of all your players — not just the vocal ones, not just the hard core ones, and not just what you designed your metrics to measure.  Your audience is might be made up of players who spend a lot of time each day playing your game, and more casual ones who only have a few minutes here and there to play; those who play for high scores and achievements, and those who just play for the story or social experience; those who try to dissect every rule and metagame new strategies, and those who are just looking for an enjoyable pastime.  If you only pay attention to the ones who post on your forums or social media networks, you may be ignoring problems the vast majority of your audience are experiencing.
  • Never dismiss any of your players as being stupid of wrong-headed.  If they find your game confusing, they’re right — it is confusing for them.  If they find your game boring, they’re right — it is not fun for them.  Rather than telling them that they’re wrong, try to see things from their point of view and find ways to satisfy their needs.
  • Players will often give you solutions to their problems rather than telling you what their problems actually are, but since they aren’t expert game designers, often their solutions aren’t the best ones.  For example, they may complain that your first-person shooter needs more powerful guns when really the reason the game is too difficult is that there isn’t enough ammunition to pick up in the level.  So, when your players start giving you solution, try to figure out why they are giving that solution, and maybe you can come up with a better one.
  • Your metrics will only measure what you’ve designed them to measure, especially when dealing with quantitative data.  Try to get some qualitative data from your players too, because people on the fence could suddenly change their playing habits.
  • When answering playtest feedback surveys, players will often tell you what they think you want to hear to avoid hurting your feelings about finding problems with your work or to avoid sounding stupid or unskilled themselves.  Where possible, have playtest feedback done by a neutral party, and write your questions so that they are unbiased as possible.  You goal should be to learn what your player’s experiences are, not get validation for your existing opinions.
  • As screenwriter William Goldman famously observed, “Nobody knows anything.” You can get all the expert opinion and follow conventional wisdom all you want, but nobody knows with certainty what’s going to work. Success depends as much on luck as anything else.

None of this will make you feel better about the election if you were unhappy with the results, but as the dust settles and we get back to our lives, maybe we can take away a few things that will make our work, at least,  a little more sane than this crazy election cycle.

Innovation On Display At IndieCade 2016

The IndieCade Festival is the country’s biggest event dedicated to celebrating games made by independent developers (those not supported by game studios). Last weekend was the ninth Festival, and this year it was held at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts, which is home to USC Games, the most prestigious educational program for game design in the country. I was only able to attend IndieCade on its last day, Sunday, but as always, I was impressed by the imagination and passion behind the games on display.

Gaming Is For Everyone

Diversity remains a hot topic in the game industry, and Intel supported this issue by sponsoring the Gaming Is For Everyone exhibit.  This was my first stop of the morning, and I could have easily spent the rest of my time in this one room.

Games for Change (G4C) is a non-profit organization promoting and facilitating the development of games for social impact, which includes learning, civics and health. G4C hosts public arcades, funds game design challenges, workshops, and produces the annual G4C Festival, which highlights games for good and brings together developers, social innovators and funders to further develop the field of impact games. Through G4C Lab, it consults with organizations on social impact game strategies and often pair game developers with cause-related organizations to executive produce games. . Among the more fascinating games at its table was We Are Chicagodeveloped by Culture Shock Games. In this first person narrative-driven adventure game using real stories,  you play a high school kid from Chicago who’s best friend has disappeared,  is threatened by gangsters at school, and finds the shootings on your block to be the only constant in your life.  As you explore your  relationships to uncover what really matters, you learn the important of friends and family sticking together to keep each other safe.   We Are Chicago has earned a number of honors and received IndieCade 2016’s Developer Choice Award.

I’ve long been an enthusiastic supporter of women in game development, and so I had to stop by the GirlsMakeGames table. Girls Make Games is a series of international summer camps, workshops and game jams designed to encourage girls to explore the world of video games and development.  The camps are run by LearnDistrict, an educational company based in San Jose, CA. We are committed to providing students with access to knowledge through our games and programs like Girls Make Games workshops. Their goal to teach 1 million girls around the world how to make games by 2020, and if anyone can do it, they can.

One gentleman I especially enjoyed talking to was Marcelo Viana Neto, an artist, educator, and game designer who also shares an interest in games and education.  While earning his Master’s Degree in Digital Arts and New Media at University of California, Santa Cruz, he developed a curriculum for an introductory course on video game game design and development for youth ages 12 and up, with little-to-no game-making experience.  The explicit nature of Radical Play is to expose students to a variety of design methodologies, diverse array of game development software, and novel game play experiences to encourage student self-expression through video game design.  His course also aims to develop students’ sense of autonomy, by using a variety of classroom management techniques, and allowing students to choose their game-making tools and creative path.

Innovative Input Devices

I decided to put one of the exhibits I visited at the Gaming Is For Everyone pavilion under a separate header for some of the innovative input devices I saw at the Festival. XTH Sense calls itself the world’s first biocreative instrument and next evolution in sensory expression. The XTH Sense harnesses the power of your body to let you interact with connected devices, musical and video software, games and virtual reality in a highly personalized and engaging way. Using multiple biophysical sensors, the XTH Sense captures various sounds from your body, such as muscles contracting, blood flowing, the heart beating, as well as your motion data and temperature. These sounds and data represent your expressive signature. With the XTH Software Suite you can use your expressive signature to control musical parameters, create digital drawings, interact with game mechanics and play in virtual reality (VR). It also makes for a cool wristband.

I was feeling a bit peckish when I game across the most delicious game to satisfy my IndieCade appetite. The Order of the Oven Mitt is a tabletop, completely edible game for all ages that will get you laughing and strategizing while you satisfy your sweet tooth.  Created by game designer Jenn Sandercock of Inquisment, this non-competitive game’s components, other than the Sacred Tome, are edible. This includes the main board and the edible-ink pens used to decorate and personalize your Knight. This design choice means the entire sacred space can be eaten, so that there is no evidence left of it.  This yummy game is designed foster friendship, curiosity and challenge, and as the cherry on top, it won IndieCade 2016’s Interaction Award.

They say you reap what you sew, and this was never truer than it is with Threadsteading, a two-player game for a modified quilting machine. The quilting machine is a computer-controlled longarm quilting machine, which moves a sewing head around a 12′ x 2.5′ area to stitch 2D paths. Players act as competing commanders of a team of royal scouts tasked with exploring a hex-gridded domain of varying terrain difficulty.  Gameplay is turn-based and designed around the unique constraints of the platform. Because the output is essentially a single “pen” position over time, each turn must pick up where the previous turn left off; because the final artifact is a quilt, the rules should encourage an even spread of lines across the surface—ideally, a quilt has neither large unsewn portions nor multiple stitched lines on top of each other.  This truly unique game, created by Disney Research Pittsburgh, deservedly won IndieCade 2016’s Technology Award.

However, the most, um, intimate input device I’ve ever used in a game came courtesy of Infinite-0: Dreams of Space.  The video game is a conceptual portrait on the life & influence of three generations of women artists: Eugenia Butler, Eugenia P. Butler, and the game’s designer, Corazon Del Sol. The central character is a pair of three legs that the player uses a controller in the shape of a vagina to navigate a series of planetary vignettes, with theme elements that oscillate between absurd dreaminess and narrative vehicles that explore the archetypes of woman-hood. The player scampers through the territory of a creative self, attaining material signifiers that raise her stature in the world, but she also holds power to destroy what she’s created for herself. Dreams, which seeks to embrace the absolute freedom to succeed creatively in respective cultural paradigms, won IndieCade 2016’s Visual Design Award.

Tabletop and Live-Action Roleplaying Games

I spend so much of my time involved with video games that when I go to events like this, I am attracted to the non-video games.  Here are a few that caught my eye.

Fracture is a competitive tabletop game where each player strives for diversity.  The game is played using a set of smart hexagonal tiles called AutomaTiles by its inventor, Jonathan Bobrow, that communicate with one another to determine the board state. The tiles simulate a population of different colors that simply “want” to be around colors different from themselves. Each player is assigned a color and is given the goal to keep the population together, but make their own color touch only other colors. Players quickly realize they need to manage their ability to prevent others from winning while moving themselves forward. I learned this a bit to late when, just as I was about to make my winning move, I lost to another player.

Keeping the Candle Lit is is a live-action freeform game inspired by blackbox theater techniques and abstract play.  Designed by Shoshanna Kessack, who drew her inspiration from being raised as a Conservative Jew, the game immerses players in a story about three generations of women in one family fighting as partisans during the war. Having escaped the grasp of the Nazis, they have taken to the woods of Europe to fight back in armed resistance. The women are from a traditional Jewish background and have spent their lives steeped in their culture and religion. Confronted with this wide-open world fraught with danger, they must decide what part of their past traditions they wish to preserve, and what legacy they will carry with them to be passed down to future generations.  A session runs for four hours, requires three players and two facilitators who will also play supplemental roles.

Bad News is an installation-based game that combines procedural generation, deep simulation, and live performance. Set in the summer of 1979, gameplay takes place in a procedurally generated American small town with over a century of simulated history. When an unidentified body is discovered in the town, a mortician’s assistant—the player—is tasked with tracking down a next of kin to inform him or her of the death. To do this, the player explores the town and converses with its residents to discover the identities of both the deceased and next of kin, as well as the current location of the latter. Whenever the player encounters a town resident, an improvisational actor reveals himself to perform the character live, adhering to the character’s generated personality, life history, and knowledge. Created by a team of PhD students at the University of California, Santa Cruz, Bad News is designed to showcase the humor, drama, and tragedy of everyday life,  and the game won IndieCade 2016’s Audience Choice Award.

Luck: When Planning Meets Opportunity

IndieCade is not just about the games developed by independent game developers, but the indie game spirit.  And no one embodied that more at IndieCade than two of my Los Angeles Film School students, Robert Rose and Josh Weston.  Although the game they had submitted, Nightmare, was not selected by IndieCade, the two received free passes for their efforts.  By accident they walked into a meeting room where a representative from Oculus Rift was being pitched game ideas.  Instead of backing out of the room, they decided to pitch the game they had developed in class and were rewarded with the promise of a follow-up discussion.  I was thrilled to see their indie spirit paying off.