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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.



Lessons Learned About The Use Of Randomness In Games

Like many other people of my generation, the very first board game I played as a young child was Milton Bradley’s Candyland. The game involves players finding King Kandy, the lost king of Candy Land, by traveling along winding, linear track consisting mostly of red, green, blue, yellow, orange and purple spaces. Players take turns removing the top card from a stack, most of which show one of six colors, and then moving their marker ahead to the next space of that color.  There is no strategic skill involved in playing the game: the winner is essentially predetermined when the cards are randomly shuffled at the start of the game.

I soon moved on to another Milton Bradley board game, The Game of Life. The game depicts players’ travel through life, from college to retirement, with jobs, marriage, and possible children along the way. Here, one random element takes the form of a wheel at the board’s center that players take turns spinning to determine the number of spaces they move along the game’s track. There are a handful of intersections where players choose to go one direction or another as well handful of choices about insurance and investments, but for the most part it too is a game of luck.

Eventually I graduated to the Parker Brothers real estate game, Monopoly.  As most readers know, this is a game in which the player’s roll two dice to determine the number of spaces they move clockwise around the board, and depending upon which space they land on, making decisions about whether or not to buy unowned properties, paying “rent” to players who own property, or drawing from shuffled cards for randomly determined helpful or harmful events.

While the dice and cards do offer a significant amount of randomness, the gameplay does involve strategic, resource management and negotiation skills.  Whereas games like Candyland and Life, in which luck largely determines a player’s success, engage only the youngest of players, a game like Monopoly, where a certain amount of skill is necessary to do well in the game, can remain engaging to players for many years after being introduced to the game.

One lesson that game designers can learn from playing games like this is how to balance the amount of randomness in the game against a player’s skill level.  All game’s need a certain amount of skill — from understanding the basic procedures and rules of the game to making strategic decisions about how to achieve the game’s goals.  However, randomness can be used help players succeed in a game despite low skills.  Now, while luck-based games can be appealing to children, games in which randomness largely determines success can cause older players to feel a lack of control, or worse, feelings of hopelessness, while playing the game.

While a game designer can allow for the occasional random event that can progress low-skilled players forward or set back very skilled players to level the playing field when players of different skill levels are playing against each other, the amount of randomness in a game should not negate player skill entirely.  This is something you can gauge when playtesting the game with other players, who can tell you if they feel their decisions do not really matter in determining whether they win or lose the game.

I learned a lot about game design by playing board games and seeing the role randomness played with spinners, card, and dice, but my higher-level education in-game design came about when I entered college and learned about Dungeons & Dragons from my classmates.  Dungeons & Dragons is, of course, the famous tabletop role-playing game in which players portray characters embarking upon imaginary adventures within a fantasy setting.

An essential component of this game is a set of polyhedral dice, which have 4, 6, 8, 10 and 20 sides.  These are not only for determining the outcome of player decisions in the game, but also for a very important use of randomness in a game: variety and surprise.  As Jason Vandenberghe explained in his GDC 2012 talk, The 5 Domains of Play,  Novelty is the presence or lack of new, interesting, dramatic, or beautiful things in the game, and is one of the major determiners of whether a player likes a particular game.  Dungeons & Dragons is a game based on a very high degree of Novelty, not only from the interesting and dramatic scenarios forming the role-playing aspects of the game, but also from surprises and variations introduced by the random elements.

For example, a typical Dungeons & Dragons scenario might involve a party of players having a random encounter with a creature in a forest clearing.  However, the type of creature it is — whether it be a common deer or a very uncommon unicorn — is determined by a role of the die.  This allows players to play the same scenario several times but have very different experiences due to the variety of the encounters.  The trick for the game designer, though, is to make sure that the variation is still within the player’s skill level, so that players are not too often presented with surprise challenges that are beyond their ability to overcome.

It was as an adult that I most began to appreciate another use of randomness in games, and that was through my experience playing games of chance in Las Vegas.  I’ll never forget the excitement of watching the roulette wheel at Caesar’s Palace as the steel ball go ’round and ’round, and the anticipation that built up inside me waiting to see which slot the ball would fall into.  Yet, I felt a different emotions, those of tension and suspense, when sitting at the blackjack tables and not knowing whether the money I bet would be lost or whether my risk would be rewarded.

In games of chance, randomness does play a huge role in determining a player’s success.  However, unlike games of pure luck, the player does make choices that also help determine his or her success.  Yet in some games, like blackjack or poker, some of the information for making those decisions is hidden from the player, and this situation can stimulate feelings of thrills and anxiety.  Other feelings, those of excitement and suspense, can occur when there are known and palpable risks, such as losing sums of money, while playing a game.  Game designers, by balancing the amount of randomness, information, risk and reward in a game can similarly spark a range of emotions in their players.

So, as I graduated from games of luck to games of chance in my game playing education, here is what I learned about how to properly use randomness in games:

  • Give unskilled players an opportunity to be successful, but not so much that they feel their choices don’t matter.
  • Add variety and surprises to increase a game’s replayability.
  • Use uncertainty to give player’s feelings of excitement and suspense.