Likes Facebook

I am a Facebook user, and have been for a few years. I’ve weathered a number of changes to the UI and its policies, as far back as remembering the day I had to provide my university email address in order to be allowed an account. In those days it was strictly for colleges and universities. The news feed has always been there though, so I’m not that old!

I consider myself to be a conservative Facebook user. I share some status updates between Facebook and Twitter, I share articles of interest with my friends and I ‘like’ my top 5 books, films and artists. I don’t seek out strangers in order to boost my friend count, and the few dozen that I have befriended are carefully arranged in groups in order to hide nonsense from those I’ve networked with, and to keep private information only for those who I trust.

I would wager that every Facebook user knows somebody else who is not so restrained; in fact, it may be you. Time was, these people would forever send me invitations to use Generic ‘Poking/Lifestyle Quiz/Hyped-up Monster Game’ Application. Their friends count would shoot past 300, and any messages left on their wall were smothered by “ALRITE M8” and other application notices due to sheer bulk.

Through a gradual shift in Facebook’s platform, and some careful culling on my part, I don’t see these sorts of messages any more. Instead, Facebook itself does the spamming, in a small box to the right of my news feed. I am informed, by this entirely unintelligent script, that because a friend of mine likes Wayne Rooney or Glee, I might too. I’m occasionally shown ‘popular pages’ in this slot too, such as links to the Peter Andre fan page or an American pop icon I’ve never come across in my life.

Pages devoted to people and projects are tolerable. My ultimate bugbear, topping even the application invites of old, is the dreaded activity page.

This used to be a phenomenon which manifested as groups, however the rulings on creating communities changed around a year ago and an update to the Facebook profile now generate pages based on what users type into fields like ‘hobbies’ and ‘general’. Coherent phrases like “Tom Smith joined We are the ones your parents warned you about” became “Tom Smith liked We are the ones…”.

It seems that I’m not alone, as this remarkable story attests. I recommend reading it in full, but if you crave a summary, it’s an article by the author of Shut Up, I’m Talking!, Gregory Levey:

Very quickly, I had passed celebrities like Brad Pitt (55 000 fans) and Spike Lee (67 000 fans), as well as entire countries (Spain: 25 000 fans). And as time went on, my book’s page overtook ridiculously famous authors like J.K. Rowling (95 000 fans) and even Dan Brown (499 000 fans). Soon, my book had more fans than New York City (510 000 fans). It was mind-boggling, bizarre, and unnerving, especially since it was unclear what was driving this. Only when I noticed that some of these fans had been posting messages on my page’s “Wall” did I realize what was going on. Their quotes were along the lines of:

“Yeah, I was saying something and my mom broke in, and I was like, ‘Shut Up, I’m Talking!’ LOL!”

Or:

“Cool page! I hate it when people talk over me!”

Perhaps you can see what had been happening. Even though the fan page shows the book’s cover and its synopsis, and informs visitors that it was published by Simon & Schuster, the vast majority of these supposed “fans” were somehow totally unaware that it was referring to a book at all. They had simply joined because they were fans of the phrase “Shut Up, I’m Talking.”

Baffling, no? It’s quite easily done, though: the ‘like’ button, which adds your name to the roster of fans, can be ticked without ever having visited the page. Although a thumbnail is often shown within this box, you can join this page from the comfort of your own news feed. Another variant also places your friends’ ‘like’ updates directly within the news feed as a one-line item. This is all they see:

Ordinarily I write this blog in order to justify my choices and opinion on where games and online media should change. I struggle with Facebook’s ‘like’ culture, because while it may be inane by my standards, it is, nevertheless, a fun feature. Levey has seen his book’s online presence become utterly smothered, and there seems no doubt that he resents this given the effort which went into the project. Tens of thousands of people are now made quite aware of its title, however. While it’s by no means a cultural phenomenon, the exposure may just earn him a few more readers regardless.

While I’m on phenomena, I feel a need to raise the point that this Facebook activity is unique in its roots and actual impact. These sorts of messages play out as cultural memes, as large numbers of people spread a single message. The phrase “Shut Up, I’m Talking!” will not, however, register in the same way as non-Facebook memes. Probably the biggest ‘word on the street’ right now is “vuvuzela”; it is a foreign word which is easy and fun to say, and it is associated with a uniquely annoying phenomenon upon which most people have an opinion. It stands for something. The same could be said of “bow ties are cool”, though it’s narrowed down to fans of Doctor Who, or of other internet phrases like “fail”. I can’t recall Facebook memes ever reaching this level of use.

Cause and Effect

I took part in Deborah Todd’s fantastic workshop way back at GLS 5, buying Game Design: from Blue Sky to Green Light as it closed. I’m finding it a refreshingly unique and informative take on the subject.

Todd’s chapter on plot and narratives has me particularly thoughtful. In writing about what she calls the ‘”and then” syndrome’, she compares cause-and-effect plots with the disconnected structures of much weaker narratives. It seems obvious that a cause-and-effect plot will, on the whole, make for a much more interactive and exciting game plot.

“Because the player does this, the enemies respond thus…”

…and so the player is involved more in each decision.

Many games do express this in at least a simple fashion. A cut-scene may show us that because the player reached the bomb and disabled it in time, their character lives and the building remains in tact. The enemy plot has thus been foiled. I have, however, seen games in which the bomb disarmament (or similar objective) was taken out of the player’s control, and all they were asked to do was make it from ‘A’ to ‘B’ within a time limit. The climactic events from then on were in keeping with the overall pace of that mission, but the player was robbed of any part in them.

This plot device owes a lot to film and other, non-interactive media. On the face of it, the game narrative would be less fun if the player completed a white-knuckle dash to the bomb, only to be shown a mini-game or some other form of ‘quick-time event’ (see Shenmue, Fahrenheit) whose presence slows the game down. Worse still, failing this crucial event will likely mean them running the obstacle course again, robbing this climax of all thrill.

Still, I can’t help feeling that this is inappropriate design; it has certainly been implemented in some quite disappointing games.

"Doctor Who: the Adventure Games" main screen

One such game is City of the Daleks – first instalment of Doctor Who: the Adventure Games. Overall I was impressed with the game: it offers 2 hours of authentic adventure in the Doctor Who universe, with some drama to embarrass many a ‘AAA’ title. It’s let down by its ending, however.

Some spoilers for Doctor Who: the Adventure Games may follow:

Continue reading “Cause and Effect”

To Design, or Not to Design…

I’ve made an odd realisation: that I miss making fansites.

I’ve often mentioned the fact I started my online life with fansites, and the point has even been raised in job interviews. I signed up to and moderated other people’s sites, then learned enough about graphic design and desktop web editing to start making my own. MThomson.co.uk, my old portfolio ‘site, came first but was followed by sites devoted to Sonic the Hedgehog and Beyond Good & Evil. I even made one for a comic project, but most of my ‘sites ran as information archives – an excuse to write at length about the games which excited and entertained me.

These sites drifted off as my time grew thin. College and then university beckoned, and while I now create enough of my own projects to write about, there is something drawing me back, for there is fulfilment in paying extensive tribute to other people’s work.

I recently conquered CSS in my own, amateur way and am looking to layout design as the next step, with the dream of forming my own, cohesive Tumblr and WordPress themes one day. My attention is also being drawn to a tantalising new domain though, and with it the prospect of a site I could just go nuts with; on features, design and content.

My problem is one of time. The more I delve back into web design and its associated skillsets, the more I feel I’m letting my design practice down. My level, game and world designs don’t actually go anywhere, as I lack the coding skills to produce demos single-handedly, but they do allow me to practice cartography, 3D sketching and other digital illustration techniques. Web design is how I began embracing digital technology, and it has undoubtedly formed the foundation of my career, in which community, entertainment and layout design all play a key part. But it’s not game design, and it costs more to engage with than simply typing into a wiki or an InDesign template for free. Costs are a nasty thing when you’re working to try and find employment.

Does anyone have some advice or insight they could share?

Idle Picasa is the Devil’s Plaything

Confession time: I keep looking back at my own habits and tendencies, finding what I hope are good traits for a game designer. Many of these are expressed as near-obsessive compulsions. I love to alphabetise things, to form cataloguing systems and maintain an orderly hard drive, however it’s often the process which excites me more than working with the system itself. To wit:

  • I’ve created four separate game design-related blogs in my time, all achieving roughly the same goals;
  • my website has been through near enough a dozen revisions and three name changes since its original launch, all with quite different layouts and logos;
  • my hard drive too has seen tens of gigabytes of data reshuffled many times over, all so I can access my picture libraries more easily.

You would also not believe how many times my bedrooms have been shuffled about. It is a mercy that my current furniture layout cannot physically fit any other way, and my bookshelves have to stay as they are. Despite that, this weekend has seen me re-organising paper documents, installation disks and the behemoth that is my Picasa library, mostly for fun.

I think I was an early Picasa adopter, once Google had bought it and released the desktop photo manager as a free download. I piped my photos into it, and all was well until I read an article by ‘Duddlebug’ in ImagineFX. He suggested using Picasa’s smooth layout, handy thumbnail views and tagging features to organise a visual reference library. I remember this much: the fortnight after I had read that advice were a blur. The fifth or sixth iteration of my file folder system was thrown out of the window as I set about importing everything into Picasa, then toying about with its albums and categories. It took a while, but I got there and have a system which stands to date. I’m rather proud of it.

If I were to read this staple of my digital life back as a design brief, I’d have the following:

  • My Picasa library is a combination of visual reference and photo album – there are spaces for my own photographs and a variety of visual mood boards comprising found images, magazine scans, screenshots and downloaded artworks.
  • The system is mirrored in Windows Explorer under the ‘public’ and user -specific ‘My Pictures’ folders.
  • Pictures are sorted by:
    • theme, e.g. cyberpunk, erotic art, pulp;
    • and purpose, e.g. stock, photos, inboxes.
  • There is room to tag each image with appropriate keywords, or they can be searched for by title and folder name too.
  • Photos can be held in a temporary tray and exported into new destinations, compiled as photo sheets, or added to ‘mood board’ albums independent of folder structure.

This creates a desktop-launched environment in which I can scroll down a set of themes, opening each to see a few dozen folders, all containing images related to that theme. I can then pick out a few pictures from various sources and bind them in an album for sharing online, printing as a contact sheet or exporting to a disk.

Open “raypunk”, for example, and I find:

Screenshots: "Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog", "Sky Captain & the World of Tomorrow", "Flash Gordon" and "Things to Come";
Artworks: Andy Hill, Bradley W. Schenck, Frank R. Paul and Johnna Y Kuklas;
Generic pictures relating to artworks, fashions, architecture and even glamour shots taken in the raypunk style.

Pretty useful if you happen to start designing a raypunk-themed game!

I’m currently threatening myself with starting a tagging regime. As with many of my cataloguing systems, the tags drifted into obscurity as I imported too many images to handle. My Picasa installation is surely housing around 10,000 images if not more, and I have to wonder about the balance between ‘making do’ and investing a few days’ tedious data processing in order to add another, more useful indexing method.

Sadly, it’s hard to find an answer when even tedium fulfils some odd compulsion of mine.

Shiny Syndrome: the Push to 80

I’ve recently witnessed quite a shocking but fascinating conflict between an emergent cultural practice and those of a world’s designers. I speak of Blizzard Entertainment’s World of Warcraft and not Linden Lab’s mis-handled “come to Second Life, but please don’t lead a second life” discussion (and I offer no apologies for slipping that in on a tangent – it’s been a hard rant to tame).

I observed the following between three players: two level 50-60 characters, clearly alts. (sadly named in a typical ‘noobish’ style with words like “pwn”) and an apparently new user in Orgrimmar. It’s edited for grammar’s sake:

“Ah, noobs these days. You don’t need items, you just need to get to level 80 A.S.A.P. Then you get items.”
“True.”
“I haven’t bought anything almost this whole time. Just grab stuff from dungeon drops and push to 80. Save as much gold as you can.”

By coincidence I was logged in as my blood elf priest at the time who, if you can forgive my brief distraction to background context, hovers around the level 70 mark so that my guild-mates and I can enjoy The Burning Crusade‘s dungeons. Thanks to the persuasive suggestion and outright pressure from our peers to reach level 80, I’d managed to skip large swathes of World of Warcraft‘s first expansion pack in a rush to reach the so-called ‘endgame’ in Wrath of the Lich King, despite having paid around £20 for the privilege. That struck me as a little insane, so my priest is kept there to heal a party whose very purpose is to explore what the pre-level 70 world of Outland has to offer. I do have some bias towards this practice as a result.

This aspect of the player culture seems to ride pretty hard against Blizzard’s designs. There’s a global delusion that says all the game’s most fulfilling content has been built into a chunk at level 80, despite the fact Blizzard have pushed this game past two other ‘endgames’ already – at level 60 in Azeroth, and 70 in Outland. A lot of the lore has been designed so that stories seeded while growing up will come to fruition in that game’s harder dungeons, and this is expressed in some hard-to-reach quest chains spanning tens of levels.

Most of what actually keeps players amused at the endgame are the challenge of heroic dungeons, a more active player versus player (PvP) scene an the tiered gear rewards which come from high-level raids. The sad fact is that unless a player retraces his or her steps and commits themselves to quests which offer relatively little monetary reward and inferior gear rewards, the story and player interaction is actually fairly sparse here. There’s also a bitterness against which I’ve done my fair share of ranting; push a character straight to 80 and it’s very likely you’ll be denied access to the heroic raiding parties you were hoping for precisely because you’re entirely devoid of play experience.

Gear is the only material reason for players skipping content. It’s a well-known fact that at level 69 (once only a level away from the endgame), a player can expect to find gear of a superior quality in Wrath of the Lich King‘s quest rewards than they will from persisting in Outland. Professions like jewelcrafting suffer most, going so far as to offer low-level recipes to Wrath of the Lich King arrivals which exceed even the hard-to-reach ‘epic’ gem cuts offered in the Burning Crusade expansion.

The problem is that both expansion packs have had to cater for a split audience. Those who bought Burning Crusade or Wrath of the Lich King on launch are likely to have spent a lot of time in the game already. Those were the players who had met the previous game’s challenges, sought out the best gear available and now expect to meet similar challenges in the new world. It’s unlikely that they will even use the gear offered for the new expansion’s opening quests.

Gear Shift

Fast forward six months or more, and we have players whose characters have only just reached levels 58-60 or 68-70. Though they may still tackle the older game’s dungeons out of curiosity, it’s unlikely that they will work on the daily quests, faction rewards and dungeon farming that their predecessors did to get at their gear sets. It seems likely, then, that they will move on to the new content and find themselves battling enemies of a significantly tougher nature in relatively common gear – after all, such enemies have had to put a decent fight up against veterans, too. The solution to that is simple – freely offer gear only a few steps below the old game’s optimum in order to up the players’ survival rate.

All of which has somehow been lost upon the majority. Without wishing to sound too cynical, it is an affliction of the shiny. There are questions asked at 58 and 68 as to where a player’s character should spend their time:

“Do I plug away at these Plaguelands quests, tackle Stratholme and Scholomance.. or instead do I hop through the Dark Portal and get fantastic gear for comparatively little effort?”

For participants in a leisure activity like gaming, this is not a hard decision to make.

Personally I’m stuck for any solution other than blocking the expansion content to player characters below levels 60 or 70. By allowing players to accept quests in each of the expansions’ new continents at 58 and 68, Blizzard have allowed for a compromise in which we can skip straight to the more polished content; quests and dungeons made after the lessons of the previous game were learned. They could leave it no lower, for even players starting at 59 may struggle to overcome the new world’s obstacles. Leave it higher, however, and the older content need not have been so ruthlessly abandoned. Nor indeed would the player skills be lost for what are often the level 80 ‘noobs’.