The Price of Research

"Mafia Wars" asks for access to my name, gender, university, friends list and email address.

Though I am now working on a couple of ‘social web’ game designs, I’m not an especially well-practised player of the genre; this is one reason why. It’s a much-touted complaint, but it does seem faintly ridiculous for a game to require so much information. I can see that profile pictures allow me to appear inside the game, and that my name will help personalise its greetings. Gender too might help the game address me coherently, but I even keep that information from Facebook, so it does Mafia Wars little good to ask for it here.

‘Accepting’ these applications always comes down to trust. I’ve trusted a game as large as FarmVille not to abuse my information, and likewise had few qualms about enabling Sony and Metaplace’s Facebook games. I don’t know the first thing about Mafia Wars however, other than the fact my friend and colleague plays it.

  • To whom am I sending this information?
  • Is it really only there to help personalise my gaming experience, or is it put towards market research and other such ventures to help the company make money?
  • Does doing this help to fund the games industry directly?
  • Is my personal information now some form of currency to help pay for a game which does not ask for other means of payment, such as cash?

These are the privacy concerns I would like to see dealt with in future; whether or not my photographs appear on other websites is of a lesser concern to me. My relationship with a game and its developer through the Facebook medium are so enigmatic as to leave my imagination filling the gaps in, and I simply do not have these worries when considering a console title. I’m only asked to pay for those with money.

Spiral-bound

I wrote before about my alarming tendency to archive anything of interest on my PC. As I try to clear my room this weekend I’m being confronted by my physical archives, and I have no idea what to do with them.

I’ve already disposed of clippings and magazines from my fanatical hoarding days, most of which have been scanned and stored somewhere on an external hard drive anyway. All that remains is a nice-looking collection of Edge magazines, some tutorials I’d printed off the internet, and a collection of spiral-bound partworks.

I collected these some time ago: a childhood fascination with model cars led me to subscribe to A Century of Cars, but I’m not sure what possessed me to collect a warship factfile like Warships Maxi-Cards. Perhaps that was down to impressionable advertising. These folders are simply packed with information, however.

The warships are presented as large postcards, sorted into class (e.g. frigate, aircraft carrier…) with information about their scale, weapon capability and campaign histories on the reverse. The photos also make for a handy visual reference.

The cars are more detailed still, sorted by date of manufacture. There are photos, unique features, Top Trumps-style performance statistics and often a write-up about the model’s history and cultural impact.

I have never used this information in a game design, but I cannot bring myself to throwing these fact-files away, just in case. I’m the same way with books, as I have never parted with one no matter how often I have read it or ignored it. Sometimes that has paid off, as I suddenly develop a keen interest in classic sci-fi or need an atlas nearby as reference for some illustration.

My problem is that physical archives take up space, and I often had to leave this sort of thing at home while I went away to uni. It’s hard to imagine myself being a transient game designer if I have to lug this sort of thing around, but keeping this sort of thing gives me confidence in my ability to write flexibly.

Does anyone have some boxed-up archive horror stories of their own to shame mine?

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?