Sunday, April 25, 2010

Some brief tourist notes

So with school holidays on, we have been doing a few touristy things of late:
  • Boston Segway Gliders: I took Child No.1 on a Segway tour of Boston. We had a groupon which made it cost effective. The main skill appeared to be the possession of weight and its application front and back. It took about five minutes to get used to the Segway before we were road worthy. The tour we took lasted an hour. When it comes down to it, it was a less of a 'tour' and more of a ride. Nonetheless, it was a fun way to spend a morning.
  • Mount Vernon: we visited George Washington's home in Virginia. This is a first class tourist and educational experience. His estate is very well preserved and the museum is spectacular. It included a 4D movie experience about Washington's American War of Independence Revolutionary War battles. Not surprisingly, the undisputed thesis was that without Washington the course of US history and the possibilities for democracy and freedom in the rest of the world would have vanished.
  • National Aquarium: this is located in Baltimore and is overpriced. Not that it was bad and they had replicated a good portion of the Northern Territory of Australia in there which was very well done. But at $30 a person, this isn't the aquarium to see.
  • International Spy Museum: this was in Washington DC. It is really for older kids who can experience an interactive spy situation while the museum does its best to make you very suspicious of anyone with a camera who is either doing something that is out of the ordinary or something very ordinary. Message: if you don't want to be tagged as a spy be slightly less than ordinary.
And a final note on a Guggenheim museum experience in New York that you will not want to repeat.  Our 5 year old daughter decided that that was the place to assert her divine right to be able to take off her coat and swing it around her head near expensive Piccasos. This prompted a removal request which she disputed forcefully. Suffice it to say, for all Frank Lloyd Wright's architectural genius he had not factored the acoustic effects of a parent carrying a screaming five year old down round the long, continuous, spiral, viewing platform. This is not a parenting situation that I would care to repeat.

Horror Tip: Paranormal Activity

Name: Paranormal Activity
Type: Film
Link: Imdb Page
Paranormal Activity (PA) is like a mix of Blair Witch Project, The Haunting and The Exorcist. It follows a recent trend of first-person/documentary movies like Rec and Cloverfield that I really enjoy and which works great for horror flicks.

The entire movie takes place in a house where young couple, Micha and Katie, lives. After Micah finds out that is fiancée has some kind of poltergeist haunting her, he decides to put up a camera and get to the bottom of what is happen. The movie then slowly builds up tension, by showing of more and more evidence for the "poltergeist" and creating an increasingly threatening situation. This is classic ghost story telling and it works very well. I had some issues with annoying characters and such, but nothing I couldn't really put a side (after all, if I can suspend disbelief for ghost, etc I can handle some stupid characterizations). On a whole it is a solid and quite scary movie!

The most interesting thing about the movie, and the reason to bring it up, is because it features so familiar environments and situations. The house they live in is by no means a classic haunted house and most of the paranormal events are quite toned down. Yet, the filmmakers have managed to slowly and carefully build up dread to the situations and because of the familiarness of the events and locations, it really manages to get under your skin. My favorite part are the night scenes in which one just views the couple sleeping in a very ordinary looking bedroom. A low frequency sound is slowly built up and finally some strange event(s) occur. The simplicity in this setup is what really drives the movie home and makes it very easy to relate the events.

I wonder if this sense of the familiar and everyday life could be used in a videogame? Games like Silent Hill use familiar environments but there is always a layer of filth, and creepiness added so that, while making you feel frightened, also makes you more distant. When it comes to events happening in most horror videos games, it is even worse. Here there is very little (if anything at all!) that can be related to everyday life.

The reason is mostly that normal life has not so much fun gameplay in it, but I think this really bad when wanting players to connect the events experienced to things in their own life. I think this is something that needs to be more explored in videogame and while Amnesia (taking place in a spooky castle in the 18th century) does not do much in this regard, I hope to explore it more later on. Cause while I do not feel the fear, watching PA, like I have done playing horror games (like Silent Hill, etc), it sticks to me in a way no other game has. When I turn off a videogame, there is no uneasiness left in me, but after watching certain movies late at night, like Ringu and now PA, I feel that some of the fear, totally irrationally, still lingers inside me and makes me dread common place objects and surroundings.

I see no reason for movies (and books) to be alone with causing these feelings and think that if properly executed, games can do it too. Given that games are so good at evoking in-game fear, if this could be combined with a connection to real-life as well, then fictional horror could really be taken to the next level!

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Some sanity in family air travel

After years of reporting on air travel woes, I am please to report that some sanity is emerging. I have written elsewhere about the wonders of Virgin America. It is currently the gold standard in family air travel. But not far behind is JetBlue. JetBlue is cheap and flies to a ton of destinations in the US. It doesn't have WiFi nor Virgin's magical food ordering system but it has TV screens at each set with live TV channels that can be used on take off and landing. It makes you wonder why these are OK for electronics but a Kindle will cause planes to crash. Actually, it doesn't. The ban is plain stupid. 

Finally, a quick endorsement for their customer service. I made an error and booked a pm rather than am flight for the family. It look as if those tickets would be lost but within a day, those penalities were reversed and everything was fine. Very nice.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Gene preferences

Last week, I met Bryan Caplan. He's writing a book that advocates that parents might think about having more kids. I've read a draft and it is thought provoking but not everyone (including myself) is going to agree with his conclusions. That said, for the most part, he is careful to accumulate evidence (certainly more careful than I have been). Nonetheless, he is a nice fellow which is not what you would gather if you looked on the Internet today.

Bryan appears to have got himself into a blogging pickle of late and attracted the ire of Brad de Long. The reason is that he has been doing what bloggers often like to do and put forward naked, provocative thoughts that cause them to be tainted with a stereotype or prejudice. Again, they are thoughts that people will disagree with and, in many respects, that is the point. But I've been there with some tough backlash and I have to wonder if all that is helping debate and discussion of the kind that the blogosphere should be about. I think about the fire thrown on the Lenore Skenazy's Free-Range Kids movement in the same light. I guess people have a right to vent but it does have the effect of stifling free discussion. 

Anyhow, Bryan's latest apparent affront to humanity was this statement: 
I confess that I take anti-cloning arguments personally.  Not only do they insult the identical twin sons I already have; they insult a son I hope I live to meet.  Yes, I wish to clone myself and raise the baby as my son.  Seriously.  I want to experience the sublime bond I'm sure we'd share.  I'm confident that he'd be delighted, too, because I would love to be raised by me.  I'm not pushing others to clone themselves.  I'm not asking anyone else to pay for my dream.  I just want government to leave me and the cloning business alone.  Is that too much to ask?
It's a view. I am pretty sure that Bryan is far from alone in actually wanting a child that is a replica rather than a hybrid and I am also pretty sure that his spouse already knows what she married. Tyler Cowen is similarly right that 50% is not necessarily the optimal gene mix. How many of us want various features of a child to take after one parent or the other? For me, there are so many areas where I think a less than 50% pass through of my traits is what I (and society for that matter!) would want. I definitely don't want a clone but I can understand that others might. Indeed, when we were having a second child, I quite like the first, and wouldn't have minded a clone of her. As she moves towards teenagerhood, I guess I am happy for our diversity.
To me the arguments against cloning have more to do with externalities and similar arguments against gender selection than with a problem with individual preferences. To my mind, this pushes us toward caution and restrictions at a first instance and that the cost to individuals from a delayed ability (maybe over a generation or more) to exercise choice is a worthwhile price for caution. That said, I haven't stated what all these are and will have to leave that for another day.

The Elmo Effect

Lots of discussion about this study:
Findings from Sesame Workshop’s initial “Elmo/ Broccoli” study indicated that intake of a particular food increased if it carried a sticker of a Sesame Street character. For example, in the control group (no characters on either food) 78 percent of children participating in the study chose a chocolate bar over broccoli, whereas 22 percent chose the broccoli. However, when an Elmo sticker was placed on the broccoli and an unknown character was placed on the chocolate bar, 50 percent chose the chocolate bar and 50 percent chose the broccoli. Such outcomes suggest that the Sesame Street characters could play a strong role in increasing the appeal of healthy foods.
So put an Elmo sticker on good food and apparently demand goes up. Of course, one wonders what sort of chocolate bar it was that caused 22 percent of children exercising free will to choose broccoli over it. On the other hand that could be some broccoli. Apparently, further investigation is needed.

What I would like to see is the impact on the quantity consumed and not necessarily the type of food. For instance, does a 'large' packet of broccoli with Elmo get chosen over a 'small' packet without it? And does it get eaten. Similarly, does a 'small' packet of chocolate with Elmo get chosen over a 'large' one without it? And can you actually repeat this on a daily basis rather than just a once off? Surely, there are diminishing returns to Elmo.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Why Trial and Error will Doom Games

A sort unspoken rule in game design is that players should be able to lose. Just about every game has some kind of fundamental mechanic that is possible to fail. Whenever this happens, the player needs to try again and repeat the process until successful. This is thought to add drama, tension and also make the player's actions count. It seems to be believed that without it games would not be games and instead some kind of boring linear entertainment. I think this position is wrong, extremely hurtful and if not fixed, will become the downfall of the medium. In this post I will explain why.

The Problem
In a book or movie it is common that the reader/viewer need to experience very upsetting events, that can be very hard to read about/watch. This is especially true to horror, where the goal is often to upset the reader/viewer and to evoke emotions such as anxiety, fear and disgust. It is also common to have more boring and slow sequences in order to build mood, explain character motivations, etc. These are not necessarily very fun/easy to experience but will make up for it later on and acts as an important ground to build the story from. Note that these "hard to repeat" moments are not merely handy plot devices or similar. They are fundamentally crucial for creating meaningful experiences and many (if not all!) of the great works among books and movies would not be possible without them. Yet, at many times the only reason one can put up with these kinds of sequences is because one know there is an end to it. Just keep on reading/watching and it will eventually be over and hopefully an important payoff will be given.

This is not true for games. Whenever in a situation where loss is possible, the player is forced to meet certain criteria or she will not be able to progress. It is not possible to just "stick with it" to complete these kinds of sequences. The player needs to keep playing the same passage over and over again until proper actions have be performed. Not until this is accomplished is the player allowed to continue. This either comes in the form of skill based actions (e.g. platform jumping), navigational problems (e.g. find the way out) or some sort of puzzle that needs to be solved.

For sequences that are meant to be emotional this can be devastating. Often the player is not compelled to relive the experience and/or any impact the sequence was meant to have is lost. Also, it sets up a barrier and effectively blocks certain players from continuing. How can games possibly hope to match the impact of books and movies, when the ability to have critical "hard-to-repeat" moments are nearly impossible because trial-and-error?

Case Study: Korsakovia
This problem is very evident in the game Korsakovia. The game puts you in the role a man with Korsakoff's syndrome and is played out in a sort of dream world, interwoven with dialogs between you and your doctor. It is a very interesting experience, but also a very disturbing one and the game is extremely brutal on the senses. Even so, I felt compelled to continue and it felt like worthwhile experience. This was until I the gameplay started. Korsakovia has all problems associated with trial-and-error (skill, navigation and puzzles) and this combined with the exhausting atmosphere made it impossible to for me to complete it. It was simply not possible for me to replay certain segments of the game and what was the first time around immersive turned into an annoyance and a (literal) headache. I am convinced that the game would have been a lot better, and possibly a truly great experience, if the trial and error mechanics where removed.

I do not mean to trash Korsakovia and I think it is a really interesting experiment. However, it is such a fine example of how trial-and-error can go wrong and I urge you all to try it out. Considering that it is a research project, I think that is mission accomplished for the creator!

Allowing The Player to Play
The problem with players not finishing games is something that recently have gotten more and more attention in the games industry. After analyzing stats collected, it has become quite evident that something needs to be done. For example, less than 50% of players ever completed Half-Life 2-Episode 1 which, considering the game's length, polish and difficulty, I am sure that is a very high figure compared to other games. This means that more games have started to try out methods at solving the problem. Some examples are:
  • In Secret Files: Tunguska one can choose to show all of the interactable areas in a scene (reducing pixel hunting).
  • Alone In The Dark allows the player to skip chapters in order to force progress in a game.
  • New Super Mario Brothers Wii has a mode where the game takes over control and completes sections for the player.
  • BioShock never really kills the player but instead just teleports them to a different part of the map and leaves the enemies and environment in the same states as when the player "died".
While this might sound like steps in the right direction all of these solution suffer from the same problem. They are all ad-hoc and breaks the immersion. The solutions are after thoughts, do not really belong in the game world and feels more like cheats than a part of the experience (BioShock possible excluded as it actually works it into the story). When the player chooses to display items and other interaction points in the game, it turns the game from a living world into an abstract interface. By skipping chapters in Alone in the Dark the player effectively skips part of the narrative and misses out on parts of the experience. The trick used in Super Mario removes any interaction from the game, which is definitively not good for immersion.

Finally, although BioShock is by far closest to having a working solution it still feels tacked on and can easily lessen immersion (for example when forced into respawn, charge with wrench, repeat situation). The player still also needs to overcome certain challenges and are forced to repeat sections over and over. However, there is never a moment where the player is unable to progress, given that they are willing to stay at it, no matter their skill level. It is far from an ideal solution, but a lot better than blocking players from progressing.

I think that the proper way to solve this is to incorporate it as a feature in the game from day one. Making sure that players are not unnecessarily blocked from continuing, is not something that should be slapped on as a side thing. It is also very important that players do not feel that the game is holding their hand every step of the way, something that can be very hard unless planned from the start. It is crucial that players feel that the performed actions and choices are their own and that they are not just following commands like a mindless drone.

Fixing this issue is really important. Games can not continue to deny content to players and demand that they meet certain criteria in order get the full experience. Not only does it discourage people from playing games, it also make it impossible to create more "holistic" experiences. By this I mean games that require the entirety of the work for the player to truly appreciate it (something I aim to talk about an upcoming post). It will be very hard indeed to insert deeper meanings into games unless this problem is dealt with.

Less Challenge, More Immersion
Allowing the player to get the full experience and not having win-to-progress situations is a good start, but just the first step in the right direction. As with Bioshock, the game can still have trial-and-error like moments, where the player is forced to play section over and over in order to continue. This brings us back the problem that I mentioned in the beginning: that repeating a certain experiences will either lessen their impact and/or discouraging the player from progressing. As these "hard to repeat" sequences are crucial in order to expand the horizon of the medium, it is essential that we find ways of adding them. And in order to do so, trial and error must go.

I think that first step towards this is to throw away the idea that a videogames needs to be a challenge. Instead of thinking of a game as a something to be beaten, it should be thought of as an experience. Something that the player "lives" through rather than "plays" through. Why designers are unable to do this probably because they are afraid that it will lessen the sense of accomplishment and tension of a game. Many seem to think that trial-and-error based obstacles are the only way of creating these emotions. I think this untrue.

Let's first consider accomplishment. While this is normally evoked by completing a devious puzzle or defeating an enemy, there are other ways to feel accomplishment. Simply performing a simple act that changes the game world somehow can give this feeling. For instance planting a tree or helping out an NPC. There is no need for these to be obstacles in order for one to feel accomplishment either and thus any sort of trial-and-error is removed. It can also come in other forms such as just reaching a destination. Also, if designed correctly one can trick the player into thinking they accomplished something, for example escaping a monster even though there was no never a way to fail.

Creating tension is not only possible without using trial-and-error; skipping it may even lead to increased tension! When the player fails and is forced to repeat, there is no element of surprise left and it often also leads to immersion being broken. For example when playing horror games like Fatal Frame and Silent Hill I can be play for quite some time without dying, feeling highly immersed. However, once death (which is part of the trial-and-error mechanic) occurs I am pulled out of the atmosphere and suddenly realize that I am playing a game. This means death lessens the immersion and breaks the flow of the game. But will it not make the game more scary?

Regarding death and fear-factor, consider the following:

1) If the player fears death because of a trial and error system, she fears an abstract mechanic and not something of the game world. By worrying about a game mechanics, the player is pulled out of the experience.

2) Once death has occurred, the player will know what to expect. If killed by a creature that jumped out from behind a corner, the next time the encounter will have far from the same effect.

Instead of punishing the player, I think it is better to add consequences. Even just making the player believe that there are consequences (which Heavy Rain successfully does) can be enough. Also, if one keeps the player immersed then it is also easier for the players to roleplay and convince themselves that they are truly in great danger even though they are not. In our game Amnesia, we are doing our best to reduce the amount of trial-and-error and still retain a really terrifying atmosphere. So far it is looking very good for this approach and we have only seen good things come out of it (I guess time will tell if we pull it of or not). If horror games, that are notorious for using trial-and-error mechanics to enhance their mood, can do fine without trial-and-error, I see no reason why other genres shouldn't.

To sum things up: When one relies on abstract game mechanics for creating emotions, one does so at the cost of immersion and the players ability to become part of the game world.

End Notes
Of course trial-and-error should not be banned from game design. Many games like VVVVVV and Super Mario thrive on the trial-and-error and has it as an integral part of the design. Likewise, many adventure games are supposed to have tricky puzzles, and could not do without them. Some games are meant to be "just games" and to be a challenge to the player. I am not in any way opposed to this kind of design.

However, in other games trial-and-error is just bad and really drag down the experience. In its worst form trial-and-error:
  • Discourages players by setting a standard of what sort of players are allowed to continue.
  • Greatly lessens the emotional impact of events by requiring repetition.
  • Breaks immersion and makes the player focus on abstract game mechanics.
  • Forces games to focus on moment-to-moment fun and discourages a holistic payoff.
It is extremely important to be aware of this and to ask oneself if a trial-and-error mechanics really serves the game right. It is only by breaking free of conventions like this that it will be possible to take games into new and existing directions!

I would like to end with some wise words from funny man Dara Ó Briain: (Check at around 3:18!)
(From a British program called Gameswipe, which is well worth watching in its entirty)

Search drama

Google have a new tool. I had a little fun.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

The iPad and children

I received my iPad yesterday. You can read what I think about it here. But I also think it will be a boon for children (and parents). Here are some examples:

 Stories come alive on the iPad. Literally. For instance, in this Toy Story 2, the TV in the background is actually showing moving images. Every page evolves and many of them have little games and songs. This is a completely new experience and all for just $8.99.

For older kids, The Elements shows how much potential there is. Apart from the great Tom Lehrer song, each element has a story, scientific information and the ability to explore objects made primarily from it. It is simply wonderful.

 Smule's Magic Piano brings music to life and allows children to experience the tempo of a song or piece. It is visually satisfying and makes you wonder whether music is going to be fundamentally changed by electronic instruments of this kind.

The great iPhone app, Word Magic, has been ported to the iPad. My 5 year old is learning to read and spell with this thing. There are few substitutes that can do this so efficiently.

Again, for older kids, the free This Day in History app from World Book gives you the anniversaries of events but also information on them in a beautiful layout.
Finally, I can't tell you how excited my son was to see that BrainPop (which we subscribe too) had brought a free app to the iPad with one movie each day as well as a quiz. Somewhat fittingly, today's move was on 'Supply and Demand.'

All this is just the beginning and there is too little here to make it a rush purchase. But it has the feel of something important for children. I look forward to future developments.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Pick of the litter

Sometimes you discuss something as parents for years and years but never act on it. Well, today, that's all changing for us. We woke up this morning and said "why not?" The answer is likely to be "the price" but here goes.

We made a mistake and have one too many children. It seemed like a good idea at the time but after the fact, the marginal cost exceeded the marginal benefit. There just isn't the room. 

Now, of course, that does not mean we have to get rid of the marginal child -- all three are surely in the mix for a decision reversal. And, of course, it does not mean we will engage in free disposal. What we are thinking is not that way out of societal norms. No, we just want to transact with a new family for whom the marginal benefit of one other child currently exceeds marginal cost. Straight up, gains from trade.

So what have we got on offer for you today:
  • One 11 year old girl, extremely tall, and with a good set of adult teeth. This week in poor condition due to a virus but we are happy to provide a warranty on a full recovery upon delivery. Does her homework, can cook and can, if given mild rewards, take care of younger children. Is also independent and cares not for expensive clothes. Really, a low maintenance option. Will suit those wanting great 'on paper' achievements but otherwise not wanting to show off the child too often in public as she can be a little surly.
  • One 9 year old boy with a disarming smile. Big advantage: can take care of your household's IT support needs. This is an opportunity not to be missed. Comes with his own mess but with an infinite capacity to cover your fridge with art-work. Will suit those parents wanting tangible displays of achievements. Avoid if like to cheer winners at sporting events.
  • One 5 year old girl with dimples fully installed. A renovators delight in a package with potential. Fully trained and naturally neat. Enjoys tormenting older children and has a clear sense of property rights. Requires some work if your desire is perfect compliance. But for the parents who want to display a cute and feisty child, this one's for you.
We are accepting offers on all three and will make our choice by 12 noon today (April 1). Reservation prices undisclosed.

If you aren't teaching your kid, you are irresponsible

From Cheap Talk, "how to teach a 3 year old to drive in the snow."