Thursday, December 1, 2011

Seeing through incentives

As regular readers know, there is nothing more attractive to this blog than a child seeing through incentives. This contribution from FailBlog requires no further explanation.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Problem of Repetition

After having played some adventure and RPG games lately something struck me: repetition in games have almost the same problems as trial-and-error do. This is not really a shocking conclusion, since repeating things in a game is basically what you do when stuck in a sequence of trial and error. But since the repetition is not a direct consequence of being unable to progress, and that not all repetition is bad per se, I figured it was worth looking into a bit.

The Problem
Most of the time the problem arise when doing an action several times causes the same response. Mostly, this does not apply when doing things to dead objects, like shooting a bullet on a wall. We expect that if we shoot the same bullet at the same place twice, the same response occurs both times. However this is not always true. For instance, many games use randomized particle effects for sparks from the hitting bullet. In more complex system, like water splashes, this is even more common, and while it might not be directly noticeable if they repeat, it can unconsciously lead to the virtual world being seen as less "real" (what I really mean is sense of verisimilitude, but more on that later) . So even though it does not constitute a large problem, we do run into trouble even when repeating consequences for very simple interactions.

The problem becomes more jarring when the object of interaction is a supposed to be an intelligent agent. This is very common in RPGs and adventure games during dialog, where the same question generates the same answer regardless of how many times you ask it. Adventure games are generally a little bit better than RPGs and often have NPCs giving a summary instead of the exact same response and more frequently terminate threads of conversation. Even so, a big part of dialog in both types of games have actions being met by the exact same response no matter how many times they are repeated.

There are of course a reason why it is like this. The player might have forgotten some information and need to hear it again, forcing dialog to be repeated. Or there might be some compulsory puzzle that requires the player to trick or persuade a character, which forces the player to redo the same conversation if unsuccessful at the first attempt. I think these reasons expose two problems that narrative focused video games have: reliance of "info dumps" and puzzles as core activities. Info dumping is a form of exposition that one tries hard to avoid in other media, yet is very common in video games (often forming the core storytelling device). It is something that I think needs to be considered more (and I am well aware we have been using it too much in our own games). Puzzles is something I have talked about having negative effects before and this is yet another argument to why we should try and cut down our reliance on them.

Another very common form of repetition is that of having the same kind of gameplay scenario repeated several times throughout the game. Sometimes this can be a core part of the experience, but most of the time it is just a form of padding and an attempt to prolong the time it takes to finish the game. There are tons of examples of this and two that spring to mind are the vent sections of Dead Space 2 and the spirit capturing in Sword and Sworcery. I felt that both of these activities would have been a lot more interesting if not repeating so much. You quickly become very familiar with them and they eventually loose much of their first

There is a deeper reason why repetition is so common in videogames. Many games base their interactions on traditional games and software systems where reproducibility is a corner stone. You do not want to use a paint-tool and not know what expect when pressing a button, and the only way for you to get this knowledge is to is for consequences to repeat themselves. In traditional games, you need to have systems that a human player can keep track of, and thus the consequences of actions must be easy to comprehend. Videogames carry baggage from both of these directions, and thus it is not strange that video games contain a large share of repetition.

As you might have guess I think this sort of repetition can be quite bad for videogames that focus on story and narrative.

The Causes
As I said earlier, the repetition has pretty much the same issues as trial-and-error. Since they are both about doing the same thing over and over, this can feel pretty much self-evident and not worthy of much discussion. However, while trial-and-error elements are more easily pointed out and can be directly addressed, repetition is more subtle and not always as obvious. Many of issues with repetition are also commonly seen as limits of the medium (or at least our current technology) and thus not really addressed. I do think these problems can be overcome though, and a first step is to figure out what give rise to them.

- Mechanics gets apparent
By having something repeated over and over to players, they will quickly start to notice patterns and short after figure out the system below. What this leads to is that the player will no longer focus on what the system is trying to represent (eg. dialog with a person) but will instead see the mechanics that it is built from (eg. the abstract dialog tree). Repetition does not force this onto the player as trial-and-error do (where the player often is required to learn the system in order to continue). But since many of the things that are repeated constitute a big part of the experience, the problem piles up. Like I mentioned above the repetition can include entire scenes and the player might go through a section in a go (ie no trial-and-error). But then when a very similar sections is repeated throughout the game, the underlying mechanics become more and more visible. As an example I think the enemies in our own game Amnesia have this very problem. This problem is very subtle though as it only applies on longer play sessions and can thus more easily slip by.

There is another aspect to this, that makes the problem even more severe. Once you figure out the mechanics of a system it can damage events that you experienced when you did not have this understanding. For instance, if you feel like a conversation is really meaningful, and then later on find this same character reduced to mechanics, it will change the way you view your prior experience. It will be very hard to still feel the same sense of meaningfulness when looking back at the conversation. Your mental construct of an aspect of the game's world has now been reduced to a mechanic and when you later summarize the experience you have had, this can severely reduce any emotional attachment you might have had to earlier happenings. As this piles up, it will slowly degrade the experience and makes you less emotionally connected to the game's world.

- Decrease in Verisimilitude
What verisimilitude means is basically how real and truthful the fictional world feels. This does not mean how well it replicates the real world we live in, but how much a it feels like it represents an actual place. In most narrative media, giving a strong sense of verisimilitude is really important. As I said, this does not mean that everything should be "just like in real life", but instead follow the fictional world's internal logic somehow. What this means in games is that when encountering a virtual element, such as a character, we do not need for it to behave exactly like in real life, but simply to behave in such a way that it evokes feelings of verisimilitude.

This means that we can tolerate dialog selection and similar, while other things are instant deal breakers. I think one of these deal breakers is the repetition of a responses. If a character repeats the same sentence over and over, it is very hard to see them as nothing but a simplistic automaton. We can quite easily disregard our knowledge that there is not a sentient mind
shaping the responses, just like know something is not really happening in a movie. But when the information that the experience is feeding us (in this case the repeated voice response), the very thing that is supposed to support the view of an intelligent being goes straight against its purpose.

Not only dialog is affected by this but plenty of other aspects. For example, whenever you have to go about clicking on the same hot-spots over and over in an adventure game, it also significantly reduce the feeling of verisimilitude.

- Decrease in effectiveness
This point is almost identical with what happens in trial-and-error. Certain scenes and events simply does not do well when repeated. For some events it is simply that they are very emotional, and it will be hard to feel the same way once again. You will grow desensitized and less prone to reacting to it. Just compare a movie filled with gory sequences to one with a single visceral scene. The latter will pack a much harder punch. Other times it might be that the event or scene is set up like a magic trick - it only works when you are not expecting what will happen. Finally, it might simply be that the passage is too boring, sensory intense or similar that you cannot bare to take further viewings. Other media rely on things like these hard-to-repeat moments a lot, but since games are so prone to repetition, they are much harder to put in and/or to have the same emotional value.

The Cure
So how do we overcome these issues? I think there are a few things to keep in mind when designing that makes them a lot simpler to avoid:

  • Not a approach the experience as a competition. The less goals we set up for the player the less likely we are to need to repeat things for the player or to make them repeat their own actions.
  • Make sure that the story is understandable without the need of info dumps. If the player is required to have story related information repeated to them, then I would consider that bad narrative design. The story should emerge simply out of playing.
  • Skip the notion that players need to learn a system. I think this is mainly historical baggage from how software works for more practical application, where mastery of the system is essential. Creation of narrative art does not have this requirement though, and I think we should instead make the player focus on the representations (graphics, sounds, etc) that the system provide.
  • We must demand more of the player and give them more responsible. We must teach them them live in our virtual worlds instead of trying to beat our game systems. As most games reward players for combing the virtual world for goodies this is not the easiest of tasks though. Our goal must thus be to undo this and reward roleplaying instead.
These small rules does of course not solve everything and there is a lot of hard problem connected with this. For instance, conversational responses is an incredibly tricky problem and the same is true for narrative devices in games.

Still, I think just a little change in our thinking can take us a long way and simply recognizing the problem is a big step forward.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Facebook Parents' Dilemma: COPPA and my daughter turn 13

[Cross posted at Digitopoly]

Recently, I became the proud father of a 13 year old daughter. I can't say it was unexpected (I had a good handle on the notion for about 13 years), it still comes as a shock. The day was greeted, of course, from a letter from the Disney Corporation. 
Dear Parent or Guardian of xxxxxxx,
You may recall that your child is registered with the Walt Disney Internet Group ("WDIG") family of sites and many more. 
I actually hadn't recalled that but I believe there had been a Club Penguin in our past. It went on:
Based on the date of birth your child provided us during registration, our records indicate that your child has turned 13.  As a result, your teen may now participate in additional features of WDIG sites including Public Forums.  
Basically, we had reached a legal milestone. Disney etc were now allowed to store information about our child including whatever she might post to public forums. Of course, Disney did give me a chance to impose parental controls to limit this activity. Nonetheless, there was a sense that a new era was amongst us.
So, what's going on here? Well, as articulately explained by my former Microsoft Research colleague, danah boyd, this was all a result of the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (or COPPA) that prevents websites from collecting data without parental permission. This Act was, of course, designed to apparently protect parents and their children. The Act has just turned 13. But in administering the Act many websites have decided to prevent children under 13 from joining altogether. That's not true for all. For instance, Disney clearly tried to walk the legal minefield. But when it comes to Facebook, Twitter and any number of social networks, children are talk to move on.
Now, like many parents, I was already quite familiar with COPPA. While it is a US-only Act, Facebook have implemented it world-wide. Now while I have looked, it is unclear if Australia has an equivalent of that Act (I'm sure someone with a legal background can enlighten me). In any case, if I, as a parent, permitted my daughter to sign up to Facebook while in Australia, it required that I lie about her age.
And there are actually many reasons why I would want to allow her to do that. First and foremost, this is the opportunity for me to monitor her interactions on Facebook -- requiring she be a friend at least for a few years. That allows me some access and the ability to educate. Second, all of her friends were on Facebook. This is where tween interactions occur. Finally, I actually think that it is the evolving means of communication between people. To cut off a child from that seems like cutting them off from the future. Some people lament that they don't want their child on Facebook for exactly that reason; if they join they'll miss out on the technology-free social interactions of their youth. I, of course, don't agree with that. I suspect that my own children, when facing this dilemma for their kids, will lament some new technology because they will not be able to experience the wonders of Facebook! But that's me. Other parents may have different views. In any case, officially, Facebook side steps the issue by officially barring those under 13 from joining. 
Apparently, there are millions of under 13 year olds on Facebook anyway. This prompted, boyd and her co-authors to study parental choices in a recent paper published in First Monday. It makes for very interesting reading. 
From a national sample of 1,007 U.S. parents who have children living with them between the ages of 10-14 conducted July 5-14, 2011, we found:
  • Although Facebook’s minimum age is 13, parents of 13- and 14-year-olds report that, on average, their child joined Facebook at age 12.
  • Half (55%) of parents of 12-year-olds report their child has a Facebook account, and most (82%) of these parents knew when their child signed up. Most (76%) also assisted their 12-year old in creating the account.
  • A third (36%) of all parents surveyed reported that their child joined Facebook before the age of 13, and two-thirds of them (68%) helped their child create the account.
  • Half (53%) of parents surveyed think Facebook has a minimum age and a third (35%) of these parents think that this is a recommendation and not a requirement.
  • Most (78%) parents think it is acceptable for their child to violate minimum age restrictions on online services.
The status quo is not working if large numbers of parents are helping their children lie to get access to online services. Parents do appear to be having conversations with their children, as COPPA intended. Yet, what does it mean if they’re doing so in order to violate the restrictions that COPPA engendered?
So, in other words, parents are side stepping Facebook's rules. And they do so knowingly. Well, of course, they do. You have to pick a new age for your child to do it. 
By the way, parents might be concerned about picking an older age for their kids. After all, when they get older, they will be presenting themselves as older still on Facebook. It turns out that Facebook allows you to change your birth date once every so often but it does review the process. That is, Facebook have data on how many underage kids were on Facebook because those kids change their birth dates to reflect their true 13 year old age when that occurs. Notice how murky the shroud of ignorance will become if someone in the US challenges Facebook's enforcement of the current law. 
The broader point is that the Act is forcing apparently law abiding people into (mild) fraud. And it is doing that in front of their kids. The messages there are just terrible. But the main cost is opportunity for parental guidance in education:
COPPA is a well-intentioned piece of legislation with unintended consequences for parents, educators, and the public writ large. It has stifled innovation for sites focused on children and its implementations have made parenting more challenging. Our data clearly show that parents are concerned about privacy and online safety. Many want the government to help, but they don’t want solutions that unintentionally restrict their children’s access. Instead, they want guidance and recommendations to help them make informed decisions. Parents often want their children to learn how to be responsible digital citizens. Allowing them access is often the first step.
Finally, let me remark on the facts that there are negatives of having your child on Facebook. You'd like to monitor but my observations of teenage conversation is that there is so much I just don't want to know. I had always figured my daughter would unfriend me first but there are days I wonder if it won't be the other way around. Moreover, now I have to think twice about what videos I share on Facebook. Fortunately, I have no concerns about them reading this blog so I can feel quite freely happy to guide you to this amusing but profane video about Siri.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Third Child

This weekend I was at a friend's house. We had visited there because they had a baby under one and found it much easier if they could stay put. This was their third child. While for the first two children, the parents would make an effort to get out, by the time the third rocked up, it was apparent that staying put for nursing and sleeping outweighed any benefit that might arise from a few months of extra mobility.

This illustrates lots of things but, importantly, how parental experience changes with the number of children. The same thing happened to us with our third child but it gave rise to an unintended consequence. When Child No.3 was about 14 months, we were out in a park -- having started to venture out again after the winter. She looked up and saw a bird in a tree. Then the bird dropped off the branch. My daughter explained "oh dear!" and then watched in amazement as the bird flew off.

At that moment, it is entirely possible she had not seen a bird in reality. For me, watching her realisation that birds would not fall but fly was amazing. 

Now, of course, I can imagine that some reading this would be horrified at this story. Isn't this exactly why you have to get out? I beg to differ. Had she been out and about, birds would have been common place and never amazing. There is surely such a thing as optimal timing for natural experience.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Puss in Boots

I guess I have been MIA from this blog of late. Moving to Canada has its challenges but after a couple of months normality is resuming. So hopefully I can pop back here more regularly.

Anyhow, yesterday we saw our first family movie for some time, Puss in Boots. This time I actually stayed awake through the movie which is, at least, saying something. Anyhow, this was a Shrek spin-off that built broadly on the theme of fairy tales -- mixing as it were the tales of Puss in Boots, Humpy Dumpty and Jack in the Beanstalk. Suffice it to say, that mix held together more strongly than the Star Wars prequels but that isn't much of a standard to meet. 

Puss in Boots was a solid movie peppered with plenty of jokes to keep adults happy and kids unaware. Ultimately, it wasn't a fairy tale but an adventure with flashbacks for character development, betrayal and a satisfying resolution. It's not a classic or a 'must see' but it is 'writhe-free.' That is, you can watch it without recoiling in agony. Basically, if you are engaging in a multi-parent negotiation over who takes which child to what movie over the coming months, this movie is a good one to put your hand up for.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Thoughts on Heavy Rain

It is very easy to talk bad about Heavy Rain. One can say it is just an interactive movie where you press buttons at certain key moments, in rare cases changing the outcome of the story. One can talk about the hole and cliche filled story and the weakly developed characters*. One can talk about this and other negative aspects of the game and I would fully agree. But if one only focuses on these areas, there is plenty of really interesting aspects that are missed.

Despite all these flaws I really enjoyed playing Heavy Rain. Sure, the quick-time-events (QTE:s) really got me worked up on more than one occasion and a lot of other issues bugged me, but on the whole it was quite an engaging experience. There are some truly tense and disturbing moments in the game that work great. For example the scene at the mall, while lame in many ways, managed to capture the protagonists sense of panic and that in an environment and setup I have never seen in a game before. The game also features great graphics, nice music and not too shabby acting (for most of the time anyway, and once you get used to the uncanny valley feel). The game also lets you be in situations that I have never seen outside of Interactive Fiction.

What really made the game interesting though was not the things that I liked, but the things that are slightly broke. Because of the way that QTE:s work, being a quite fragile system in terms of immersion, it sort of exposes your own usually hidden thought processes as you play the game. Also, the game's filmic nature and focus on a branching narrative makes it a virtual smorgasbord of game design theory to try out. This is what truly makes Heavy Rain worth playing.

Immersion as an essence
By far, the most important realization I got when playing Heavy Rain is how interaction is not mainly about giving the player interesting choices. When playing the game I never felt the need to make choices on the basis of seeing what would happen, instead I simply wanted the characters to act in certain ways in order to confirm to my expectations of how I thought they would (and should) be acting. What I think happens is that as we interact in a videogame, there is feedback loop between us sending input to the game and us getting information back from the game (in the form of visuals, audio, etc), which builds the basis of us feeling present inside the game's virtual world. The better this loop works, the more we feel as a part of the experience.

Heavy Rain is an excellent example of this process at work. When there is flow in the controls (which is usually in the scenes giving you direct character control, such as the early mall sequence), there is a very satisfying feeling of being one with the character. Then suddenly some weird QTE pops up and you either fail at completing it, or it simply does not give the result you expected, and once again you are pulled out of your sense of presence. The game is littered with moments like this, pulling you in and the throwing you back out. When Heavy Rain manages to sustain the belief of you having agency over the character, that is when the game is at it best. These are the occasions when there is a very strong loop of interaction going on and you are the most present inside the game's world. When this loop is broken, it does not matter what kind of interesting choices you might have at your disposal. The game immediately becomes less engaging the moment the loop of interaction breaks down.

In this light of thinking, QTE events make perfect sense. It is simply a rudimentary system for trying and sustain a feedback loop during various types of scenes. It is not about setting up a competition for the player, it is just a very blunt and unreliable system to sustain a sense of presence. I really doubt that QTE:s is the way to do narrative art in videogames, but it does gives us invaluable information on how to proceed.

What all this seem to indicate is that a videogame that wants to tell a story, should not use interaction to deliver a multitude of choice, but instead to reinforce the feedback loop of immersion. This might entail having choice, but the choices in themselves are not what is of the most importance, giving a very sharp focus on how to design the mechanics. It may actually be that the very future of making artful games with focus on narrative is to focus on this interactive loop of immersion. There is a lot more to discuss on this subjects and there are other things that also points in this direction. I am hoping to devout an entire post on that subject soon, so consider this a taste of things to come.

A final note: This "interaction as a means to create immersion" does not imply that the future of videogames are incredibly linear interactive cinema -far from it. In many cases a non-linear and open game world is essential in order to support the feedback loop.

The importance of determinism
In most games you have a pretty strong sense of what the protagonist will do when a button is pressed. Not so in Heavy Rain. Apart from direct movement and a few repeatable actions (like be able to shout your son's name in the mall scene), most of the time icons just pop up with vague hints on what the input will achieve. Sometimes you will learn what action might happen (such as that an up-arrow at a railing will mean that you will lean against it), but this takes a bit time and requires that a similar action has already been carried out.

In many cases this has a drastic reduction on the sense of presence. For one, it makes you unable for you to form plans. Simply by surveying an environment you cannot determine a course of actions (even if you know all trigger spots), and during action sequences it gets even worse as QTE:s may up at any moment in pretty much unguessable form. Making up plans is one of the basic corner stones of human intelligence, and possible the reason we developed a conscioussness, so not having the option of doing this is a hard blow against the sense of agency. Another reason it reduces immersion is that your character might not act in the way you intended. Before picking an action you almost always makes some kind of assessment of what will happen, but it is quite likely that this will be dead wrong. Thus the character your are supposed to feel a connection to, ends up performing an action that you did not intend. Of course, it is very hard to feel as a part oft he game's world when this happen.

This system stands in stark contrast with how Limbo works, where you are pretty much always certain of exactly what will happen. I think this is very much connection in the level of immersion Limbo manages to have throughout (unless you get stuck in trial and error of course), and how Heavy Rain stumbles through the entire experience. One should not be too hard on Heavy Rain though as the space of interactions that are possible to perform throughout the game by far outnumber those in Limbo. The real challenge for the future is to coming closer to multitude of actions in Heavy Rain, but still having the determinism of Limbo.

The understanding between Player and Videogame
Another big problem in Heavy Rain, which is related to the point above, is that the game sometime seem to work against you. It might seem obvious that this is a dealbreaker in terms of immersion and I have already discussed the problem of camera control in Dead Space Extraction. The issue can be a bit more subtle though and Heavy Rain serves as great example of this. For instance, in one scene I had made a plan of actions: to first bandage an unconscious person and then to poke around in his stuff. There really was nothing hindering me from doing so but instead the game removed my ability to interact directly after caring for the person. The game interpreted me wanting to help the guy as I also did not want to poke around, thinking that they two were mutually exclusive actions. Of course I thought otherwise and considered it no problem at all to do some poking afterward.

There are plenty of situations like this and it makes it quite clear that you should never move ahead on a bigger outcome from a choice without being certain that this is also what the player expects. I also see this as a problem of having major choices the player in a game that lack a high level simulation (like Fallout for example). Just the simple action of walking out a door can have many different meanings to a player, and one needs to be careful and make sure that most players have same idea of what it means. Once you throw branching paths into the pot, it gets a lot more complicated and clashes between player and game is much more likely to happen.

Emotional Simulation
An interesting aspect of Heavy Rain that I have not seen (at least not this directly) in any other game using QTE:s (or normal mechanics for that matter) is to trick the player into feeling certain emotions. The way it works in the game is that the player is forced to hold down a lot of buttons at the same time, while often also moving the stick around. This creates an uncomfortable and demanding way to hold the controller in, which is meant to simulate the way the onscreen character feels. While it might sound a little dodgy, it works quite well in many cases, especially in a scene containing self-mutilation.

The research behind this kind of response is actually very well established and designer Chris Pruett has hypothesized that the effect is probably a reason why many unforgiving horror games turn out to be extra scary (a design decision that comes with other problems though). The way it works is that we humans often do not know why we are feeling a certain way and unconsciously project it onto something else. For instance one experiment had people thinking that arousal due to their fear of heights was due physical attraction instead.

All is not good with this design in Heavy Rain though. Because the inputs you perform are not fluent (as it is prompted on a situational basis) and non-deterministic (as explained above) you are mostly very conscious of what you are doing with the controller. If the controls where more transparent (like in Limbo) you would be less conscious of your input, and any uncomfortable placement of the hand is much more likely to be projected into whatever the protagonist is doing. I think this can be very potent stuff if handled properly and let the player get immersed in experiences that would be hard to simulate in any other way.

Trial and error
Heavy Rain boasts that it does not have any game over screen, but it still manages to have is massive amounts of trial-and-error. This time the forceful repetition of events does not only occur in death threatening situations though. In Heavy Rain it often happens during extremely mundane actions like brushing your teeth and taking a shower. It is an extremely good example why this sort of design is so immersion destroying. From believing that you are playing an actual living character, the sudden requirement to repeat an event pulls you out from the experience directly. It is so obvious that you go from trying to become present in a virtual world to just trying and overcome a very mechanical task.

I think the biggest problem is that Heavy Rain is very sensitive in how you complete the QTE sequences. Let go of a button for a micro seconds and it results in an instant failure. When the game gets rid of so many other stigmas of old game design, it is sad to see it stuck in this one. I think the way it should have done it is to become a little bit more relaxed and to allow some more failures. Instead being competitive-like and very strict in the actions, it should instead check if the player tried enough to do something. As long as the players are playing along, I see no reason for punishing them. The game should have tried to keep the illusion of an interactive-feedback loop alive for as long as possible, instead of simply breaking it at the slightest incorrect input.

Some misc points
Now for some shorter stuff that I found interesting:
  • When done right, the direct and free control method is by far the more immersive. However it also puts a lot of pressure on the character reacting in a proper way. Quite often, the character I was controlling ended up acting like a moron, walking into walls and the like, even if I really tried hard to control him properly. The constrained events do not suffer this problem, and have the characters act much more lifelike, but at the same time they do not have the same level of interaction required for deep sense of presence.
  • Heavy Rain is at its best when simulating tightly space and time-wise bounded scenes. At these points it was much easier to give me a sense of having agency and to let me become one with the moment. The scenes self-mutilation, pushing through a crowd, escape from bench in cellar, etc are all great examples of this. Judging from what seemed to have worked best in Amnesia, I think a lot can be gained by taking this design further.
  • The game is a great test bed for a game that has decisions with big ramifications, such as the death of main characters. My own conclusion from Heavy Rain is that all of these choices are probably unneeded and did not gain me much except the sense of missing out on the story. Interestingly, Heavy Rain feels quite different in this regard from a game like Fallout (with the, as mentioned, more higher level narrative simulation).
  • Achievements (trophies on the ps3) really suck in story-centric game. Having gone through a scene and then getting a sort of grade, really removes the ability to make up your own mind of what just took place. It is quite similar to the "understanding between player and game" problem, as achievements has a high risk of going against the player's intentions (and does not really help gain anything).

End notes
As I think this post shows there are many reasons why Heavy Rain is a really interesting game to play. It does a lot of things that other videogames do not even dare to consider, and while it kind of fails on a lot of it, just attempting it is an important step on the way. If only more mainstream games were like this.

Also, after playing through Heavy Rain I have come to wish that there were more games like it. By that I do not mean more games with QTE:s (which I really hated much of the time) but games that allows the player to always progress and focus on a rich narrative experience. In most other games I either have to endure annoying puzzles or have to become an accomplish in a genocide. Given the high scores the game has gotten (from press and the public) I do not think I am alone in this. Please do not see this as an urge for people to copy Heavy Rain though, but instead to use the game it as a step towards something that truly makes use of the medium.

*Emily short has a really good essay on the story of Heavy Rain. Check it here.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Thoughts on Limbo

A while ago I played through Limbo for the first time. I thought it was quite an interesting experience for many reasons and been thinking for it on and off. Now that I have collected most of my thoughts on the game I thought it was time to write a little post about it.

Starting off, I thought the game had really nice visuals that really added to the mood. Small things, like the change in light level and tilt of the camera heightened the mood substantially. Another thing I really liked was the variety of activities and lack of puzzle repetition. Too many games just try and extend play time as long as possible, and it is nice to see games going in the other direction. All this has been said before though and is not what this post will be about. Instead I want to discuss some other things I realized when playing the game.

Limited Interaction
I think the biggest take-away from Limbo is how you do not have to give the player lots of actions in order to make a fresh and interesting experience. The basic actions in Limbo are move, jump, climb and grab. These are then used in a mixture of ways, constantly keeping the experience fresh by putting the variety in the world instead of the controller. This can be seen in other games like Shadow of the Colossus (but then to a lesser degree), and I think it really helps to heighten the player's feel of presence in the game. It only takes the player the first few minutes of the game to familiarize with the controls and the rest of the game can be spent on building up immersion, instead of constantly learning and remembering controls.

It is so often that games become about the mastery of the controls and I think that makes it so much harder to become one with the game's world. The faster the flow of interaction from player to game can become intuitive, the better. We do not want players to think of what buttons to press and sticks to pull. Instead we want players to directly express their wishes from mind to game, unaware of any intermediate hardware.

Puzzles and Limits
As I played Limbo I realized that most (if not all) interactions were directly added to the puzzles you have to solve. I felt that there could have been tons of extra elements to interact with in order to make the player feel more connected to the world.

But then I realized that the design of the game went against this. The puzzles in Limbo depend a lot on experimentation and thinking "out of the box". You have to try out every object in order to find a way to progress. If the game had had superfluous elements, then this would have made the experience so much harder. Players probably would have spent much time interacting with objects that were completely unrelated to the puzzle they were trying to solve, increasing the overall frustration and damaging the flow of progress.

This means that puzzles can be quite a hindrance if you want to make a living world. If the player's goal is to solve puzzles, then that forces you into make sure the rest of the experience supports this. And because of this having puzzles excludes a lot of things that could increase the player presence, emotional connection or just about anything that might work against the puzzle solving.

This is one reason why we will try to completely remove puzzles for our upcoming game (more on that in another post).

Trial and Error
I just have to mention the trial-and-error nature of Limbo as it is something that I have talked a lot about before and it is quite a prominent feature in the game. First of all, the "repeat and try again" mechanic that is used in almost every puzzles is something that ties into the general design of the game. It is quite clear that it takes the basic design from Another World but I link Limbo is a lot less frustrating.

What I found interesting is that the most annoying parts were not the puzzles where you died and had to restart, but where you missed some part of a sequence and had go back and try again. This mainly because the latter meant you had to redo a lot more and the deaths often had a sort of fun, morbid "gotcha!" mentality to them. Also when the world is reset and the game place you at a certain point you get a greater sense of focus on and a hint that you are on the right track. Just failing to do something always give you that nagging feeling that you might not have set up everything in the proper way.

Still, dying or not, for every time I had to repeat a part of the game, it became less about being present in it's virtual world and and more about figuring out an algorithm. I felt a clear change in my state of mind after just one or two attempts at a section. I am probably a biased here, and thus not best of test subjects, so would be interesting to hear what others felt.

A final note on this: Some people have argued that the cruel death mechanic heightened the tension in the game. However, I think the most important part of creating tension in Limbo was that you never know what to expect next. I never felt any increased tension after having failed once or twice, but instead my greatest tension was from anticipation. Coming closer to some strange branches or a weird contraption, my mind conjured up all sort of imagery of what could happen next. I think this sort of build-up is a lot more powerful, than simply adding cheap engagement from the knowledge that you had to restart (which rarely worked on me anyways).

Cut scenes
The last part I want to discuss are the cut-scenes, or more precisely the lack there of. It is still so common in games that you remove control from the players and then pan/zoom/guide the camera to make sure that the player watches some event (e.g. a creature emerging).

Limbo does not do this, and it makes the events that you see so much more compelling. By using the game's space and character movement as a means of pacing, the events are very well directed, but without ever removing control from the player. I especially liked the villagers that you see running about and thought it was a shame that they were not utilized more. I would have really liked for a more coherent narrative to have come out of these encounters.

End Notes
Despite being mainly a game about solving puzzles, I think Limbo gives a lot of hints on atmosphere and narrative in games, both by things that it does good and things that it fails at. I also wish that we could see games with this kind of polish and interesting art direction, that had main focused on creating immersion, atmosphere and a compelling narrative. As seen when investigating games like Limbo, all the tools for creating truly expressive experiences already exists, it is just a matter of putting them to go use!

Friday, September 30, 2011

New Blog Digitopoly

While this may not interest all readers here, I just thought I'd mention a new blog that I am a part of -- Digitopoly. It covers the economics of the digital world.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Hockey without apology or knowledge

Child No. 1 (daughter who is now 12 -- I know it has been awhile) played her first ice hockey game today. She was playing in a 'mixed team' although, as it turned out, she was the only girl .

As she walked away to get changed into her, how should I put it, armour, an elderly man accosted me in a fashion that would make a great opening scene from a bad sports movie.

"Is that your daughter?"

"Why yes it is."

"It's not right. I've told them. It's not right." [I should add here that I am absolutely not making this conversation up]

"What's not right?"

"She shouldn't be playing. They haven't got what it takes."

"You mean girls?" 

"Yes, they should be in their own team. Too timid. Won't stick their nose in."

At this point, I wasn't too sure what it would take to stick her nose in and so was getting a little lost.

"She can take care of herself I think."

"Is she a fast skater?"

"I don't know about that but she does have a black belt in Taekwondo."

He regarded me with an eye that suggested he could tell that this fact was not too relevant and that he resigned himself that I would be unpersuaded of that truth. I bade him goodbye and wondered for a brief moment if the rest of the afternoon might play itself out according to B-movie scripts.

I needn't have bothered. You see, I should also tell you of one other fact. This was her first hockey game. And by first, I mean she hadn't actually even seen one before. If there any nuances, tricks, appreciation of skill or rules about the game, she would go into it blissfully unaware of them.

Their coach told them one thing: stay in your position. As it turns out, this is the one thing that no-one -- except for the goalie -- seems to do. The rest try very hard to get close to the puck in the hopes of -- intentionally or otherwise -- scoring a goal. For that reason, they rotate the players every 90 seconds in the hopes of getting some of them out of the way.

This wasn't my daughter's problem. She was a defender, fullblack, bludger -- I have no idea what the term is. She stayed back, on the left, near the goal. And she did it religiously. Basically, she made a decision that skating anywhere wasn't a good idea but that if anyone came her way she would be unmoved. One large boy from the other team attempted to negotiate that policy and found himself flat on his back. They all avoided her spot after that.

From a spectator's point of view, that meant an hour of watching -- when she was on the ice -- my daughter standing with a good 5 metre birth away from anything that might look like interesting action. You can see what I mean from this picture. She is No.7 in the front of the picture. Suffice it to say, no movie director will be optioning the story anytime soon unless they are interested in ruthless inaction.

And what was the outcome of this whole affair. Her team lost 3 to 9. I guess having that one extra kid up near the front of the line mattered.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Amnesia - One year later

A year has passed since we first released Amnesia and a lot has changed for us at Frictional Games since. We have gone from being pretty much out of money, to being financially stable in a way we never thought we would be. Everybody in the company has gotten raised salaries and we have more than enough money to complete our next game.

Our financial situation is far from the only change though. The success of Amnesia has led to us getting a lot more known among players and the press. Reactions to the game are still pouring in, and it feels extremely good and humbling to be able to have that kind of impact on people.

With that little summary, now let's get down and dirty with some more detailed information. (And oh, see end of post for a wee surprise.)

Let's start with what most people probably are the most interested in: how many units have we actually sold? During the GDC EU lecture I noted that we were now above 400k units total, but as we scrutinized all of the figures it turns out this was not quite correct. Jens did a recount of all income we have gotten so far and the figure ended on 391 102 units (which is of course not correct when you read this as the game sells at about 2 mHz).

This sounds like a huge amount for sure, but there is something to consider with this figure. About 75% of all the sold copies, that is 300k, were on discounted sale. This is quite substantial really, especially when you note that a good deal (almost half) of the remaining 100k were sold at launch. In the end this amounts to around 50% of all our earnings coming purely from discounted sales (most at a 66% or higher discount).

While discounted sales indeed dwarfs our normal sales, the day-to-day sales are quite expectational as well. Right now we are selling around 6000 units per month at full price. This is actually more than enough to cover all salaries and operational costs for each month, which is a situation we still have not really gotten used to. Another interesting fact is that monthly sales have actually increased, they are almost double now from what they were half a year ago. What all this means is that we can work with a healthy buffer that makes it possible to take more risks and down the road spend more money on outsourcing for sound, voices, art and more. Both of which should allows to make our next game as good as possible.

The distribution between platforms depends a bit on how you count it. In our own store it is as follows:
Windows: 70%
Linux: 15%
Mac: 15%
However, our store is the only one that sell a Linux version of the game, so in total sales the percentage of Linux is a lot less. When looking at other stores the distribution is around 11% Mac and 89% Windows. The Mac percentage goes down a bit during sales, where Windows sales increase 3 times or so more compared to the Mac ones. An interesting note here is that Mac sales in our own store did not go down as a other online outlets like Steam started to provide mac versions; meaning it did not steal our customers but opened up to a new market. We think it is a good incentive for other stores to support Linux as well!

The final data regarding sales is the difference between physical and digital sales. As of now, a total of 35, 000 boxed copies of the game has been sold, or around 9% of total sales. This is not too shabby considering we had no release in Europe and that the American box came out half a year after launch. The money earned from a physical unit is much less than from a digital one, but a physical release can still be helpful (however, other problem arise that might make it not worth it, something we will cover later on).

Impact on Penumbra
As Amnesia gained popularity, we already had our Penumbra games up for sale. We were quite curious in seeing how these sales would be affected by Amnesia's success. As Penumbra is quite similar to Amnesia i terms of gameplay and mood, and that both were made by the same company, we thought that we would see a boost in sales and attention for Penumbra. Turns out that Penumbra was almost not affected at all.

The number of monthly visitors for Penumbra are still the same as they were before Amnesia. Same with sales; the monthly total is still a little above 500, which it has been for over two years now. The only influence Amnesia could have had is to keep the average up.

So why did Amnesia have no (or very little impact) on the sales of Penumbra? We think one reason is that main bulk of Amnesia buyers simply does not connect the two. While they are similar, the first look is quite different. Penumbra takes place in present day and Amnesia in the 19th century. Another reason is that whenever there is some exposure for Amnesia, Penumbra is almost never mentioned, so most people that enjoyed Amnesia never learn there is a similar game available.

User response
I noted earlier that the daily sales have gone up over the last year, and large part of that has been due this - responses from the players. Still now, a year later, once a week or more some new post about Amnesia goes up on reddit, youtube or a similar user generated site. This kind of constant bombardment of Amnesia related material has continued to raise awareness of the game.

The major example of this would be the the Amnesia WTF video that reached 4 million views before YouTube, because of mysterious reasons, removed it (here is a copy). Others include this pug picture that managed to spread quite virally, images like this one, and much more.

Another pleasant surprise was the amount of custom stories that have been made. In Penumbra we only knew of a single attempt to make a user-created level and that one was never released in public. For Amnesia at least 300 custom story projects have been started, and 20 or so have actually become completed, high quality, experiences. There has even been a Tetris clone made with the tools!

This surge in interest has made our community a lot more active too. A year after we released Penumbra: Black Plague, our forum was quite dead, having a post every other day or so. Right now we average about 200 posts / day, and all of it is pretty much thanks to the custom story creation. This has also spread to other parts of the forum, and there is a lot more general chatter, technical help between users, etc . It really shows that supplying users with creation tools is well worth the time.

The making of Amnesia
As a year has gone by a few resources on how Amnesia was made has popped up, so it seems like a good time to sum them up now:

The Terrifying Tale of Amnesia
A post-mortem of Amnesia at the Escapist, that describes what we went through when creating the game. It mostly deals with the financial side, but also on how corporate decisions lead to changes in design, screwed everything up, and other juicy stuff like that.

Birth of a Monster
The design and production process of the grunt monster, written by several of the people involved. Do not forget that there is a second part.

Evoking Emotions and Achieving Success By Breaking all the Rules
A talk I gave at GDC Europe about a month ago. It goes over a lot of the design decisions that went into Amnesia.

Next for Frictional
So what is next for us at Frictional Games?

First of all, we want to get up to speed on our next game. Since we spent all resources we had on getting Amnesia done, we had to start the new project without any sort of momentum. Added to this was the potato thingie that also took a lot of time (but was really worthwhile). This has lead to a discrepancy between design, technology and art that we just about caught up to now. We have done a lot of work on the next game, but it is not until now we are close to having a nice work flow.

Because of this, a major issue for us to fix is to be able to manage multiple projects. We want to have a nice reallocation of resources at the end of each project and make sure to keep the flow going. However we do not want to grow the company too much, and thus we are looking into other avenues. If everything goes as it should we will announce our first stab at a solution to this quite soon!

Another big change for the future will be consoles. The main reason for choosing consoles is purely financial. Right now our main income comes from very few channels, and we need to spread out the risk somehow. The other reason is that we feel we are missing out on exposure by not being on a console and not reaching as many players as we should be able to. Unfortunately consoles are really old compared to the PC right now, so it will be far from straightforward to develop for two platforms. Our current thinking is to make the console get a lower end version and make sure console specs influence the PC version as little as possible.

Finally, in regards to what our next project is about, the basic idea is to use lessons learned from Amnesia and then take it to the next level. We have mentioned before that the next game will not be as horror focused as our past ones, but still have a scary atmosphere. Our intention this time is to dig into deeper and more intellectually demanding subjects. Another goal for us is to get past having classical puzzles that break the flow, but without making the game into a spoon-fed type of experience.

We are all really excited about the future, with tons of ideas we want to try out and now with the resources to do so properly. This is the first time for us developing a project that we know we can fund all the way and not worry about tight resources. It will be very interesting so see what will be possible to create this time!

More questions?
Anything else you want to know? Well, you are in luck because the entire team will be available for an Ask-Us-Anything at Reddit! Just go here:

It is really simple to register at reddit, so just do so and fire away in case you are curious! And do make sure to up-vote it so it gets some exposure!

And finally, thanks to all who have supported us, pre-ordered our games, put up crazy stuff on the internet, provided help in the forums and in other ways helped to spread the word!

Thursday, September 8, 2011

GDC Lecture now online!

The lecture I gave at GDC EU 2011 is now up here:

It is one of three lectures that were put up (so far) and it is 100% free for you to watch :)

Monday, September 5, 2011

The Ex

This weekend we ventured to the Canadian National Exhibition or 'The Ex' as locals call it. I guess some divorced parent gets to say 'the ex took the kids to the ex.' Anyhow what this is is a carnival on a massive scale; similar to the Royal Shows in Australia (e.g., the Royal Easter Show in Sydney or Brisbane's Ecca but without showbags). Nonetheless, it was huge and included a full air show. Quite impressive. It also had the feature that it was a dream to get to by public transport and so we had no trouble finding parking right on the show grounds.

Anyhow, I'm going to focus on the food. We entered the 'Food Hall' expecting to see agricultural exhibits but instead were greeted with the mother of all food courts. The array of foods was impressive but it did err on the 'carnival-side' of the health equation.

So here is exhibit No.1.
This turned out to be both serious and, accurate, in the circumstances. It really was the "healthy choice." Moving on to exhibit No.2.
Yes, it is a 'Mac and Cheesery.' We sampled the deep fried Mac and Cheese which is quite something. This we had to do after opting not to have the 'Mac and Cheeseburger' at the Cheesecake Factory last month. Continuing on the deep fried them, we went for one deep fried Mars Bar shared between us.
Now I had thought this was an Australian invention but had never tried it until now. It is a once in a lifetime experience and that is what it will stay.

Finally, and when you see Exhibit No.4 you will understand why the first aid tent was located next to the Food Hall was this ...
The thing next to it I had seen before but this was combinatorial innovation never before imagined. You just know that more foods await us. Suffice to say, this one would have to wait. The queue was too long and we didn't go there. There is always next year.

Spy Kids (with Smell-o-scope)

We have been doing some travelling and so our movie going activities have been slim this summer. For some reason we caught, Glee: The 3D Movie, in Australia; one advantage, we had the whole theatre to ourselves -- a private showing. That said, we paid too much for it. 

Today, we went to our first movie here in Toronto. Unlike the previous experience it was packed. I have no idea why as the weather wasn't too bad but I guess summer is officially over. The movie we saw was Spy Kids: All the Time in the World. It turns out that this is actually the fourth movie in a series that I dimly remember seeing the first of. Suffice it to say, the kids in that movie were no longer kids so they had to focus on two new ones. Same basic plot: kids think parent is lame -- in this case, a step-mother -- until she turns out to be a spy and is in need of help. We, the audience, know she is a spy right from the beginning as she goes into labour (being 9 months pregnant) and still manages to catch the bad guy. Then, with baby in tow, she sticks around the home for a year or so under the cover of being an interior decorator. The house comically breaks her cover -- or does it -- hard to know with artists. 

Anyhow, she is brought back into duty as something happens to time. What happens is an opportunity for the script writers to engage in cliche and puns on a scale never before seen in movies. Think of all the "time" and "clock" puns out there and you'll get the picture. I, for one, was thinking that I really shouldn't be spending time in this movie and the time could be better used. Apparently, that was a theme for the parents in the movie too which I guess made me wonder about the overall irony of the situation. 

But I digress. The other feature of this movie -- if the obligatory third dimension wasn't enough -- was a fourth dimension, smell. This movie included 'Smell-o-scope.' Now, it used to be the case that when you advertised that a theatre would smell that was a problem for the theatre. Well some marketing geniuses have made lemonade out of lemons and sold the smells as a feature rather than a bug. Of course, if you were expecting some technology -- pumped into the theatre or integrated into the obvious place on the 3D glasses -- you would be disappointed. They just handed you a card with numbers that you scratched to reveal a smell with the numbers carefully integrated into the movie. 

Anyhow, I had to admit that the movie producers did not seize this opportunity. With 3D they throw stuff at you to cause fear. The same was clearly possible here. They had a baby appear in the first five minutes. If you can't make a fearful smell out of that, you are not trying.

Then again, it would have been just an amusement factor for us parents or, as it was in actuality, a lot of sniffing what seemed to me to smell like cardboard. I think that fourth dimension isn't going to take off.

Now I'd like to give you more insight into the plot of the movie, how it turned out, was it suitable for kids and all that. But I can't. Somewhere around smell number 5 I feel asleep and didn't wake up until the closing credits. I was surprisingly refreshed. Hey, what do you know, I did end up using the time well. (Note to movie-makers: the 4th dimension in children's movies is to provide an environment where parents can have an afternoon nap. That is something we will pay for.)

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Economic meaning in children's books

In the NYT today, an article about economic meaning substituting for moral teachings in children books. To say that this is a new trend seems way overstated. Even in the article most of the books cited are old. Moreover, it seems to me that the best books about economics are those that go alongside numeracy (e.g., this).

One point struck me as wrong.
One of the most common themes in books for young people reflects parents’ fears that their children will become “bad” consumers, said Marah Gubar, director of the children’s literature program at the University of Pittsburgh. 
That often means rampant consumers are cast as villains, or at least losers. Take Roald Dahl’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” in which Augustus Gloop and Veruca Salt are spoiled brats whose parents buy them whatever they want. And even in “Harry Potter,” Ms. Gubar noted, the appalling Dursleys shower their son, Dudley, with presents, a pointed symptom of the family’s wickedness.
First of all, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is teeming with economics beyond annoying, spoilt kids. The whole plot is one of innovator rights and the use of trade secrecy as a means of intellectual property protection. And, by the way, the moral message on that is in favour of such protection. Second, Harry Potter is unabashedly the Magical World of Monopolies. Almost every significant economic good or service is provided by a single provider from banking to wands to books and, finally, to school. The only exception is the entrepreneurial entry by the Weasley brothers into an existing but clearly underserved market. One suspects had Voldemort gone after the monopoly businesses rather than the government he may have been more successful in his evil ways.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Worst parenting mistakes

What are the worst parenting moves economists have made? Head over to Freakonomics to find out. Bruce Sacerdote almost killed his children sailing. Steve Levitt almost killed his children losing control of a stroller. Justin Wolfers is killing himself with a new puppy + ignorance (he should have talked to me!). And Bryan Caplan has apparently made no mistakes except not to have more kids and to sound continually like a broken record.

I'm there too with some terrorising of a one year old, incentive debacles and mistaken punishment.

GDC Europe Sum-up

Me, Marc and Jens got back from GDC Europe yesterday so thought I should write a small summary of the trip.

First of, some thoughts on the lecture:

My talk was scheduled the first day and was the first time I have ever had this type of lecture so I was quite nervous. This meant I had a bit of trouble relaxing and enjoying the other talks before mine. Also, the night before I had had the final practice round for the lecture, making my dreams that night filled with nothing but fragmented sentences from my script, which of course tainted the next day too. My head contained little but the lecture.

My first plan had been to learn the entire lecture and not use any notes, but during practice I always managed to miss something and felt having some kind of notes was more secure. As the lecture slides was pretty much void of text and the actual images often not very descriptive to what I said, I had to keep everything in my head. In the end, I am happy I made the decision of having notes as I did get lost a few times, but could quickly get back by a glance. Hopefully nobody noticed anything.

When it was finally time for the talk I was really worried if any of the videos would work, as there had been numerous problems when testing at home. Fortunately all videos showed perfectly!

Overall, I think it all went quite well and the audience seem to enjoy it too. There are summaries of the lecture at Gamasutra and Gamespot, and I will see if I can get the script up too later on.

I was also involved in a panel with some other people. My five minute presentation was pretty much an extended version of an old blogpost.

Once my lecture was done I could finally relax and enjoy the various lectures a bit more. As always there is a great mixture in quality and content. My favorites were probably a lecture about RPG mechanics, a talk on horror by the developer of the upcoming Silent Hill Downpour (even though I disagreed with plenty) and a talk about performance capture (by one of the founders of Ninja Theory).

Apart from the GDC stuff, we also attended something called the NotGames Fest. It was an exhibit that showcased a bunch of games that did not have a big focus on "fun game mechanics", and Amnesia was one of these. It was all much more nicely setup than I thought it would be. Visitors had to enter a atmospherically lit, cave-like room built up from cardboard. It was quite moody and fitted the exhibit perfectly. I really liked how it contrasted the normal, ear-deafening, sensory overloading exhibits videogames are normally shown in and had a very calm and serene feel to it instead. I hope that there will be more game exhibitions like this!

At the evening the exhibit also had a BBQ featuring hot-dogs in round buns, which was felt a strange (but still tasted good). Jens told me this some German tradition. Anybody know anything more about this strange way of hot-dog consumption?

Also like to note that two guys form the Italian company Santa Ragione gave us a free copy of their horror board game "Escape from the Aliens in outer space". We tried it while waiting for our plane to take off and even though we were probably a bit too few it was really nice. Will definitively play it again.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Horror Tip: Hide

I just saw this little horror game gem called "Hide". It is a very simple game with very simple graphics. Basically the game is all about finding five signs scattered across a map while avoiding being found. I think it is a great example in how not showing something properly makes the imagination go wild. The extremely sparse (yet workable) graphics and the atmospheric soundscape forces you to immerse your self and imagine your worse fear.

The game only takes a few minutes to play, so I suggest you all give it a go. And do not forget those headphones!

Friday, August 12, 2011

GDC Europe

Just wanted to inform everybody that I will be holding a lecture and be part of a

panel at GDC Europe next week.

The lecture is called "Evoking Emotions and Achieving Success by Breaking All the Rules" and will be about some of the design in Amnesia and also touch upon a lot of subjects discussed in this blog.

The panel has the name "Beyond Fun: Perspectives on Video Games as Expressive Experiences", which will include 4 other swell guys and gals. In it I will have a lil rant called "Games or Toys".

Both of these will take place on Monday and be one after another. Hopefully I can put something or link to video after the convention is over.

Will anybody here be attending?

Monday, July 18, 2011

My English language test for Canada

It has been suggested that readers of this blog may like my post from last week from Core Economics on my English test. While I'm at it, you might also be interested in my Harvard Business Review blog posts.

Anyhow here is the post ...

Today was an interesting day for me: I took an English language test. This was a test designed to see whether I could function in English speaking countries -- in my case, Canada. It is a requirement for permanent residency and is, indeed, something required of people coming to work in Australia and also the UK. I queried this requirement as to why it applied to everyone and they said, "it even is a requirement for people from the United States." Well, I guess there is no higher gold standard on English language proficiency than that!

To my keen economics mind, I immediately hypothesised that the International English Language Testing folks had some pretty good lobbyists but in actually, I guess immigration people just got sick of arguing with people over why they had to take the test. "Yes, I know you are an English literature professor going to teach at the Australian National University but you are an Indian citizen, etc ..." It was probably easier just to force everyone to do it.

Now this test was no "walk in the park." It was a 4 hours experience designed to probe the intricacies and subtleties of the English language and all without the help of the spell check feature that I used right now for intricacies and subtleties that regular readers will be surprised to learn actually improves language and exposition in this blog.

The first part was a speaking test. This is where a tester sat across from you and carried on the most unlikely conversation for someone you just met. He read a scripted piece which I filled in the other side of the conversation from. It started off standard and friendly enough with some exchange of basic information before he somewhat ominously decided to put a question to me where I would be allowed some "thinking time" before I answered. The question was to describe a job that I believed helped the world and to explain why I thought that. Of course, my first thought was "well, not your job because this is clearly a waste time in some broad sense." But as I was the only person in our family required to take this test, I had been ordered to be on good behaviour. So I went with scientists and put in a solid discussion of the microfoundations of endogenous growth theory for a minute. I don't think he was that intrigued because when my minute was up he cut me off mid-word -- apparently more desperate to be free of this than I was. He then decided to provoke me by asking whether I thought that "industry destroyed the environment." I said I thought that by definition all human activity, including industry, destroyed the environment, what of it? We then meandered back into whether technology was making people's lives more enjoyable (I said, "it is me! I have an iPad") but before I could get onto the Easterlin Paradox, my time was done.

It was then time for the listening part of the test. This turned out to be a rather difficult 30 minutes. The first conversation I was forced to parse was a discussion of the hotel, travel and accommodation needs of a marketing professor visiting some random university. Suffice it to say, I have been expertly trained to filter out all detail from such conversations which was exactly the handicap I did not need for this exam. It was hard work. But not as hard as the next part of working out the fishing license requirements in some random English village and then on to a request by a student -- and I am not making this up -- for help in understanding the bureaucratic requirements of an upcoming overseas field trip. To say it was a struggle is an understatement. I had to work with every inch of my attention to concentrate on this. That said, the field trip -- if you are one of the marine biology, 3rd year undergraduates eligible to take it without the express written permission of your BIOL724 tutor -- did sound cool.

Next came reading. This was an hour long one. Well, I spent 30 minutes at a slow pace on it. But it had to do with Australia. Yes, indeed, our local testing facilities were hard at work here. First, I had to understand the entry requirements on what is the back of form you fill out when you come to visit Australia. It is harder than you think and let me tell you, canned goods have to be declared! Then I had to understand the various things to do in Macarthur in NSW which, by the way, was an important link in the intercontinental telegraph system at one point before turning on to -- again, I am not making this up -- industrial relations. Namely, I had to read through the Sigma Pharmaceuticals (an actual company) guidelines on working from home -- did you know you had to have your own private insurance if you bring a computer home? -- before turning to the grievance manual at I think the same company.

And as I sat bored for the remainder of the test I realised what an opportunity had been lost. My guess is that a good share of people taking these tests are dealing with Universities. Universities in turn have all manner of procedures and manuals they want new-comers to read. This test was the opportunity to do that. Instead of trying to understand Sigma Pharmaceutical's procedures I could have been handed the University of Toronto's. There is no other way I was going to read that. There is a real economy to be had here.

The final part of the test was writing. You know I hadn't taken a test for 20 years and I pretty much hadn't hand-written anything for that same period of time. It was only like four pages but it was hard going. What a stupid way of testing people that is in this day and age? Anyhow, the written part asked me first to write a letter to a local community organisation helping the elderly to offer my free services. I decided to make up "Grey Power Button" whose motto as "we'll find that damn power button." I had to explain how I heard about it (answer: overhearing and Apple store conversation with an elderly gentlemen whose cable modem was clearly unplugged) and why I thought they would be useful (answer: because people need to make sure that when they download adult material using their neighbour's wifi their grandkids broke into, they need to close their browser afterwards -- or something to that effect). The final task was to explain why some people like to live in big cities and others like to live in small towns and who was right. 

The answer, of course, was no-one and if everyone acted on some universal preference they would destroy the very thing they liked about where they lived and so should just shut up about it. Hey, it was the end of a long day, my hand was tired and I was in the mood for rant.

Anyhow, I cannot recommend against doing this enough. There has got to be a better and quicker way to assess language -- maybe some two step procedure. I'm glad it is over -- assuming I pass that is. If I don't pass, it will turn out I am not recognisably proficient in any language!

[UpdateEric Crampton observes that New Zealand has it right.]