Friday, February 26, 2010

Breaking the habit

One of the missions of this blog is never to let peer-reviewed, academic papers that address parenting issues from an economics perspective go through without comment. This one in Applied Economics by Mixon, Pousson and Green fit the bill [HT: Craig Newmark].
As a test of elements of Gary Becker's model of habitual behaviours, the present study examines another potential example of a habit - pacifier use - within the youngest segment of the population, infants and toddlers. To explore the facets of a child's pacifier habit, we make use of an extensive questionnaire on the effectiveness of several proposed methods for stopping a child's pacifier consumption. Results indicate that children's pacifier use approaches the habit/addiction threshold, and it is best alleviated with abrupt cessation, or 'cold turkey.' Interestingly, our empirical finding that 'cold turkey' dominates or is superior to other methods of getting children to stop relying on pacifier use (e.g. limiting time of use, altering the pacifier's tip, etc.) has two implications. First, it supports the Beckerian notion that a child's pacifier habit approaches the habit/addiction threshold, as stated above. Second, it contradicts suggestions from many in the health profession to seek methods other than 'cold turkey' to stop a child's pacifier use. 
Some translation is in order. The Becker model suggests that there are some behaviours where your past consumption makes it much more likely you will consume today in the same manner. He was thinking of cigarettes but a parent will think of use pacifiers and, relatedly, the use of thumbs. The model's prediction is that 'cold turkey' -- the immediate cessation of the behaviour -- is the way to break the habit as softer forms of gradual modification mean that it is a constant struggle to resist temptation. Suffice it to say, there are some psychologists out there with another perspective.

The paper then looks at actual behaviour through a survey of parent choices and concludes that cold turkey was indeed far more effective in breaking pacifier habits than other forms. Of course, it is a bit contingent on the parental style and so it is hard to tease this out as something causal. Nonetheless, if a non-Becker view was right, then tough parents would also be failing parents. 

We've taken the cold turkey route in our parenting on this stuff (see here). Of course, we migrated the children over from a pacifier to a thumb as soon as we could so that we could save the fuss. But at about 2 years old, we went cold turkey on the thumb business (actually, it was a bit older for the first child). This was partly a function of our tough style and partly a function of the sad fact that I did not stop thumb sucking until age 11 and unavoidable dental costs. That you don't want to see.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Upward sloping demand curves?

[HT: Tim Harford] Let's put this in the behavioural economics likely to go too far category. Here is a Dad who intends to pay his kids to play video games in an attempt to reduce the total time they spend playing video games.

There is no trick here. A straight out payment per unit of time spent. His theory is that his kids are intrinsically motivated to play video games and that there is some evidence that when you place a monetary reward on an activity with intrinsic motivation, it can actually demotivate. Now usually that is for stuff like working hard to help others out. It is not usually for something that is of private value. On those activities, surely normal economics will take over at there will likely be an increase and not a decrease in video game playing. That is definitely how it would work in our house.

But there is a caveat. If it works in concentrating gaming, it may turn out that the kids get sick of it quicker and it turns them off. We'll see. If it works, I'll let you know and will then try and conduct an experiment with my arguably more rational, economically minded children.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

A good travelling experience. In the US!

It is hard to believe, I know but this week we took off to LA for the school holidays and we had a great experience. Way back in December we had accurately forecast that we would want to flee Boston in February and so we booked tickets back then and fled. Readers of Parentonomics will know that an entire chapter was devoted to previous woes with airlines (and those were in Australia). I myself have had my share of US poor experiences here and here. So I am very happy to report about a good one: on Virgin America.

Actually, Virgin has been pretty good to us in the past. I remember traveling on the Australian one, Virgin Blue, with kids over Easter. We were going on holidays on a 3 or 4 hour flight. A little while into it a hostess came by and said "who's up for face paints?" and off our then two kids went and we didn't see them again until the end of the fight! Perfect.

That didn't happen this week but the electronic equivalent did. Virgin America is the way too fly in the US. Each seat has an individual screen where you can choose from TV, movies, games and even live TV. (I spent a good 3 hours watching curling. I know, why? But once you start it is hard to stop). Oh and all this entertainment was available prior to take off and on landing so no blackout periods trying to work out how to keep the kids amused. 

But wait there's more. You can order food directly from your seat whenever you want. Just order, swipe your credit card and within minutes it is all delivered. And it was reasonably priced and good food too boot. On a 6 hour flight, being free of scheduled cart times is a real bonus. 

And I'm not done yet. If you think the kids just sat there glued to the TV, you would be wrong. The oldest ones spent a great deal of time chatting with other kids all over the plane. They have some messaging system and before too long, the whole flight was one big shared experience. Watching the same TV stations while chatting, pointing out things out of the window and otherwise never laying eyes on each other. Well, not really. Every now and again a child would walk down the aisle to the bathroom and linger peering at our row.

While all this was going on, I was free to do whatever; including work with the inflight WiFi. Add to that the fact that online check-in worked including pre-paying for checked baggage so that experience at the airport (well, apart from security) was first rate. Indeed, here is a hint, they often check baggage at the gate to speed up boarding. That gives you pre-boarding priority and saves you the $20 bag fee.

Sadly, Virgin only have a limited number of routes but wherever they are going we'll be there. (Oh and by the way, the fares were ridiculously cheap).

Friday, February 19, 2010

Closer look at Teaser and more

After a lot of work we are finally done with the teaser! Hope you all enjoy it! In case you have not seen the teaser yet then do so before continuing with this post:

The map played in this teaser is based upon two other maps from the game and have been especially built to show of the mood and gameplay of Amnesia. If you are worried that the teaser will spoil parts of the game for you, have no fear, the exact events of the trailer are not in the game, but there will be some that are quite similar.

The map took about two days to build and script and then it took around 100 playthroughs before we got it as we wanted. Whenever I felt satisfied, I showed Jens a clip and he immediately gave me a list of uncountable other things that I could do better. As if Jens obsession for details was not enough, I also had to record the teaser while having an extremely smoothed camera. This meant that I had to pre-plan all camera movements because when ever I moved the mouse, the camera just gently floated towards the destination. It was especially hard to get the correct position during fast movements. This will of course not be the case in-game and was just something I had to do to get nicer camera movements for the clip.

"So the clip was not really from the game after all!", the skeptic might say. Well, the player will never experience exactly what is shown in this teaser and the main reason for this is to make it short and fun to watch. What happens in the trailer will perhaps take 20 - 30 minutes using proper gameplay and that would not be very fun to watch. There is a big difference between watching as a passive spectator and directly interacting with a game. Our goals was to cram the feeling of playing the game into a 3 minute movie clip. Also note that there is no cheating here, I actually played this map in a continuous recording and did not render it offline or something like that. Hope this clears up things :)

On a technical note, we really wanted to record it in HD, but my computer was just too crappy and we did not want a 10fps recording. The up-side of me having an ancient rig is that the game should flow smoothly on just about an computer bought over the past 5 years though.

Now for some more in-depth study of the movie:

- 0:20
This is not very visible in the clip, but there are actually fishes swimming around here. We intend to get many types of critters in the game and this is one of the ones that are in right now. (another critter is in the clip, can you spot it?)
Also note that we got proper water reflections and refractions. It is way more advanced than seen in Penumbra and also optimized for indoor rendering.

- 0:30
Rotations and other advanced physical controls are the same as in Penumbra. They are a lot smoother this time though and even though it is actual physics being simulated there is little lag noticed.

- 0:33
That scream has a very significant part of the plot. What I cannot say.

- 0:44
New nice feature with the doors is that you can grab at any place while interacting and it will always work. In Penumbra it was very specific where you grabbed, but not so in Amnesia.

- 1:05
As darkness decreases your sanity you never want to enter dark areas like this without using the lantern or having some candles (or similar) to light.

- 1:21
All the nice blood and stain effects are thanks to Luis hard work with the decal editor!

- 1:54
First glimpse of new enemy! What can it be...

- 2:01
Just as in Penumbra, looking at enemies is a best avoided. In Amnesia it will cause your sanity to drop.

- 2:05

Notice how books just slightly slide along the shelf because of friction and so on. This is all due the nice simulations provided by Newton Game Dynamics. It was quite fun setting everything up on the table so that that some fell off while pushing it, giving the a feel of urgency when trying to barricade the door. The table was also harder to move due to the weight from all the stuff on it, so had to give it an extra push to get into place (using the "throw" button). One never knows what going to happen with physics...

- 2:26
It took a while to remember the best times to open the closer door, in order to get a nice effect. After 50 tries or so, I had that creature pretty much figured out though (apart from the times he managed to stray from the path and not be where I expected, that actually scared me a few times...). Also note that there is no special gimmick for hiding in a closet (like in Clock Tower, etc), you are always in full control and use same mechanics as the rest of the game.

- 3:13
Brief glimpse of another enemy...

Hope you enjoyed this closer look at the teaser! If you liked the movie, please spread the word and post on your Facebook, Youtube, Twitter or what not. We do not have any big PR resources (it is basically me or Jens taking a break from normal work to do it), so any help is extremely welcome! Thanks for all support so far!

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Exploring Deeper Meaning In Games

This post aims to be a deeper look at my earlier rant about meaning, narrative (plot) and gameplay. After considering feedback and thinking about it some more I would now like to write a more constructive text. In this post I will outline some steps and ways of thinking that I think are needed in order to achieve deeper and more varied meaning in games. "Deeper meaning" is of course a highly subjective thing, but what I mean is simply games where the core is not just about a gameplay mechanic, showing entertaining gore or similar. Instead, the focus should be on exploring something other than pure "fun".

should come first
Instead of starting out with a gameplay mechanic, one should find some other kind of meaning to have at the core. Note, that "meaning" does not have to be something hard to understand or extremely profound. "The joys of snowboarding" is one kind of meaning and "What is it like to be homeless?" is another. Note the difference in meanings here, one is pretty mainstream while the other is not. Also note that I would consider both of these meanings "deep" as they do not concentrate on the gameplay directly.

I think having this kind of meaning can be crucial in order to create a good work, and many (all?) great films and books are based around it. For example, take books like Animal Farm and Grapes of Wrath, both of which are very compelling stories and also have a strong meanings. The meaning that lie at the core of these works is what is essential though and not the plot. Grapes of Wrath tries to describe the problems poor farmers had when they where forced to move to California. Animal Farm is at one level about corruption in governments after revolutions and at another a fairly accurate description of the Russian revolution. The important thing is that the plots are not what is essential in these books. Instead the plots are merely vessels in order to bring forward the meaning and have been written to do so in the most effective manner. Without the strong meaning at the core, the novels would have never been written. The engaging stories has grown directly from their respective meanings.

It is worth noting that just because a meaning lies at the core, a game does not have to turn out different from how they normally are today. For example, the "The joys of snowboarding" could be made into an ordinary game like SSX or something more experimental like Stoked Rider (that does not contain goals, scores, etc). What is essential though is that the meaning is never sacrificed for other features. If a score is added to the "joys of snowboarding" game then it should increase the meaning and if doesn't, it should be discarded! Ignoring this cause problems in many games, some of which have been discussed here.

Fun does not need to be in focus
When designing a way to bring forward the meaning, one should use all tricks that are available to the medium and not feel forced that everything must be fun gameplay mechanics. Focusing on having some kind of entertaining activity at the core of the game tend to take away the meaning and instead let the mechanic take over. A recent example of this would be combat and upgrading in Dead Space that takes away quite bit of the Alien/Event Horizon-like atmosphere ( which I assume is what the designers where after).

When designing our upcoming game Amnesia we first focused on having a core gameplay which the rest of the game could be built upon. However, every type of gameplay we tried out weakened our core meaning of creating a scary and disturbing atmosphere. It was not until we just let go of the concept that something "fun" needs to lie at the core that we really felt the project coming together.

It's not all about events
What drives the meaning in books like Animal Farm is basically a string of plot events. This is because linear media, like books and movies, are pretty much all about plots and therefore events is the most common way to bring forward a meaning. However, this is not true for games, where we have interactivity, non-linearity and generated content to work with as well!

I think many game designers look too much at books and films, and mimics their ways of communicating a message. Instead I think that one way to move forward is to look at the meaning and then figure out the best way to convey it. (Of course this also means that one must have a meaning from the start...)

Consider portraying a dangerous neighborhood. In a linear media a character might be mugged when walking in the area, and in that way conveying that it is a bad place by using a plot event. In a game this could be done through interaction instead. For instance, NPC:s can give more hostile answers to questions asked, showing certain objects will make people stare with greedy eyes, etc. These kinds of interactions all enhance the meaning that is portrayed and makes the mugging event irrelevant.

What I wanted to show with the previous example is that instead of a scripted event, interaction with the world can provide the same kind of meaning. It is also worth pointing out that some games (Fallout comes into mind) already use this method, but I would like to see used more often. Also, it is very important to be aware of this possibility and not just assume that an event is important for the story. There are bound to be many plot events in a story that could be changed this way. One should not focus on having everything as interactivity though; the method to be used should always be the one which best conveys the intended meaning.

Winning is not everything
All ancient games like go and backgammon are at the core about one thing: winning. This is something that seem to have followed ever since and most games rely on some mechanic where the player either succeeds or fails. While it suits some types of games, it can devastate the experience in others and it also sets up a sort of barrier on who can play the game. Many games effectively say: "Either you complete this task or you won't proceed!". There seems to be some kind of common knowledge that this type of mechanic is a must in order for a creation to be called a game and if the player cannot loose the game is pointless.

I believe it is time to stop thinking in terms of "beating a game" and instead focus creating an experience for the player. For example, I have discussed chase sequences in a previous post and the main problems with these is that they loose their impact when replayed. There is a very simple solution to this problem: make sure they are only played once! I think it is possible to still create tension even if it is predetermined whether the protagonist dies or not. It is all about immersing oneself and it works great for films and books. Another way is to continue the game regardless if the player wins or looses, changing the game accordingly. Both of these methods are implemented in Heavy Rain and while I have not tried the game, reviews seem to show that it works quite well. Also note that it is possible to fool the player into believing that there are grave consequences if failing in certain sequences. As long as there is some rare occasions where it really does matter, the player will never be sure if the current situation is "for real" or not. This approach makes it easier for the designer as large amounts of narrative permutations does need to be supported.

This thinking can be applied to just about any sequence that is supposed to have tension. Every time "game over" is shown immersion is broken and the player is pulled out of the game world. One can give the experience more flow by skipping the old notion of "trial and error" and instead make sure that the game always progresses. At the same time the game is made accessible to more people and not just hard-core gamers.

As a final note on the "win or loose" topic I want to add that this is of course not true for every type of game. But I do think that designers should carefully consider if a trial and error mechanic is really needed and if it might not be for the best to skip it.

Existing for existence itself
The interactions performed in games are almost always connected to some kind of gameplay mechanic. Often just about all the actions available in a game are relevant to the core rule system and actions are not often present only because of their intrinsic value. I think this is something that needs change and would like to show why by considering how graphics has evolved in games.

In the first games, all graphics had some kind of relevance to the gameplay (e.g. Pong). However, as technology advanced graphics where added just to enhance atmosphere and for the viewing pleasure of the player. Today very little of a game's graphics are there strictly for gameplay and are mostly there to make the game attractive. The same has not been true for interaction and there has been very little improvement. Often when more "superfluous" interactions have been added, they have still gotten some kind of gameplay connection (like eating various food items in System Shock 2).

Notable exceptions are for instance Max Payne where sinks, driers, etc can be turned on in a public toilet. Another examples is Half-life 2 where many of the objects have physical properties, allowing interaction, but no relevance to the gameplay. While these interactions add a lot to immersion they are pretty simple and I think more complex actions could and should be added.

Consider a game where a male protagonist has a child following him and certain actions can make the child sad or happy. The mood of the child has no impact on the gameplay, but would just be a mean for the player to connect to the father-child relationship. Some might argue that adding some gameplay relevance would make the impact of a happy/sad child stronger, but I think this is false. First of all, gameplay comes with balancing issues and instead of focusing on making the child believable and on creating a certain experience, one might end up focusing on making it all work gameplay wise instead - in the end decreasing the impact. Secondly, adding a gameplay mechanic easily make the player focus on the underlying rules instead of evoking feelings. Because of this, only having the happy/sad boy interaction for its own sake can make it a more emotional experience.

Just as adding nice graphics, for no other reason than their beauty, can make a game more compelling and attract more people, adding gameplay wise "meaningless" interactions could help make the game medium reach new places.

End notes
I do not want to stop games from being made as they are now. Neither do I want all future games to have deep meanings. However, I would like to see games that take the medium to new places and explore deeper subjects . I would like to see games that can provoke deep thought and feel as something other than "pure entertainment". As I mentioned in the earlier post on this subject, the current state of games, where the core experience is almost always be about hero induced genocide, is just sad. There needs to be some change to this or else a lot of potential will go to waste!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Valentine's Day, seriously

This Friday (12th February) is Valentine's Day. Now before you say, "oh no it isn't!" I have to beg to differ. That is the day our two youngest children are, near as I can tell, compelled to bring a Valentine's card to every other person in the class. The school sent home a convenient list of the some 45 names in total that require cards and the instruction that they be prepared for Friday. And by prepared, you can't just go to the store, buy a pack and put names on it. Nor can you, as I had wanted to do, draw a card on the computer and hit print (quantity = 45). Each requires individual attention. Suffice it to say, this is an exercise requiring many hours and, frankly, if we didn't have a snow day today (that is, a day whereupon fear of snow = no school for you), it is unclear whether the household could produce the required amount of love.

How did this happen? In Australia, Valentine's Day exists but is incidental and certainly not officially existent at school. We ignore it totally (yes, including the adults, thank goodness). But here, it appears the school has had the temerity to attempt to desecrate an innocent Hallmark event and try and turn it into something meaningful. The cost to us is obvious. Time and effort without what appears to be any extra meaning. Let me tell you if you hear, "why do we have to do this?" 45 times, the generation of meaning is surely lacking.

Now this turn of events, compulsory Valentines, probably had its origins in its counterpoint, voluntary Valentines. The problem there was there was some inequity in the card -- and hence, love -- distribution. So the solution was equity and as much of it as possible. And apparently, at no point has anyone managed a 'secret' Valentines arrangement restricting cards to a series of bilateral arrangements so that everyone has one. Friday, our children will lug 20 odd cards a piece to school and bring 20 odd cards back.

One might also ask: what happened to Valentine's Day for our middle school, 6th grader? She hasn't heard a thing about it and also isn't considering making any cards (she still doesn't know her classmates that well). I have no idea what the consequence of that is going to be. But in an environment where all of her classmates were used to producing cards en masse, what will happen this year when the compulsory becomes voluntary? Best stock up on ice cream just in case.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Sweet money

We are told that money has three characteristics. It is a unit of account, a medium of exchange and a store of value. In this week's Dear Economist column, Tim Harford engages with some parents who want to make the government-supplied currency less like money. The parents give their child money in principle but always hold the cash and so can restrict purchases of sweets. That was all very well until the child was given money by others and so expressed a desire to use the money for some sweet accumulation. The parents want to stop this. In effect, they are hitting directly at the value of money as a medium of exchange. 

Tim Harford responds:
I can see three options. You rule out confiscation. The second is to offer incentives for low sweet consumption by increasing or reducing your daughter’s pocket money. The trouble is that sweet consumption may be hard to monitor. The third is to admit defeat and let your daughter make her own choices. Sweets have costs and benefits, and your daughter appears to be a better economist than you are.
Tim argues that if you give a child money, you give them money and have to face the consequences. The problem with these choices is that if the child has strong preferences, as my eldest certainly would have, these options would be unlikely to work. 

I've faced this same issue. We give her money and tell her she can spend it as she chooses. But what she wants to choose are sweets which is hardly surprising as it is so darn scarce in her life. My solution was this. She could purchase sweets but every time she did so, I would impose a health tax to compensate us for the additional expected health costs this behaviour would cause. (It is similar to option 2 above but with a clear rationale). The tax as a pretty hefty 100% of the sweet purchase price. My ever frugal daughter decided that was too much and figured that she would wait until she left home and enjoy the full benefits of the likely sizable fortune she would accumulate by that time. (This is something she has figured out before). So while we can manipulate the system we can't get around the fact that money is a store of value.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Alpha - the beginning of the end!

Yesterday, after several weeks of grueling 15 hour (kid you not) days, we finally reached a really important milestone here at Frictional Games. It's by far the most important milestone we have reached so far and might be the most important milestone of the entire project!

We have completed making the Alpha version!
For ALL Platforms! (Windows, Mac and Linux that is)

So what does this mean? In general terms it means that we now have a large chunk of the game done which we can evaluate and draw conclusions from. More specifically it means:
  • All code for tech, tools and game are done and what is left is basically polish. Note again that this is for all platforms! Sure, the polish is not an easy thing and can include plenty of smaller feature additions, but it is a road map that we can control and plan for.
  • We can now, for the first time in almost three years, test the game and see how it really plays like!
  • We now have all of the design for the game done and know with strong certainty how we want it to play and how to fulfill that vision. Much work remains, but now we know what we are working for.
  • Having the design done also means that we can pinpoint very exactly what needs to be done and how it should be done. This means that can we now for the first time see a finish line and know that we have what it takes to cross it!
This project has been an emotional roller coaster for us at Frictional Games. There have been many times when we thought we where done for and had to stop making games. Now we finally feel that we have the finished game firmly in our grasp. Hopefully all the sweat and tears we put into this will help create an extra memorable experience for you all to play in a couple of months!

And oh, more fun stuff to come really soon!