FilePlanet Mailbag: In-Game Ads? You Speak Out!
February 16, 2007
Last week I posted about in-game advertising, specifically an analysis of Jay Cohen from UbiSoft and his arguments that in-game ads are a good thing for the industry all around. Read the original piece if you're having one of those "Say WHA?" moments. Meanwhile, I've got a pile of mail here with opinions from all over.
I was surprised to see that many of our readers were okay with in-game ads, albeit with caveats. Some readers thought it could be a really positive thing, particularly if it'll bring the prices of games down:
"Am I really in a crowd of very few people in that I think, and have for a very long time, that in-game advertising is a very good thing? ... Advertising is the means for why Hollywood only requires a minimal charge of $20 for a class A movie. Yet, gamers still are forced to fork over 2 to 3 times that amount for a class A game... I do hope that if advertising does become paramount in games, at least the price of titles begin to drop. $50 to $60 for new titles is too much. It simply needs to come down, and if ads can help, so be it...." -Scott Wilkins
"As a long dedicated gamer it don't bother me one bit if the company gets money and puts it back into the game for patches, new content (booster packs, expansion packs, etc) And as long as it doesn't distract you and is plastered all over the place. A lot of in-game ads add some realism into it if your playing in a city. I say they continue doing it." -Thunder
"I woudn't mind looking at 10+ advertisings a day if I could play WOW for free." -Glen Fernandez
"If you want 'Gamers' to get on board with advertising in games then make it worth their while, cheaper games for instance ($50 vs. $60), FREE download able expansion packs. It's 'ALL ABOUT THE MONEY!!' and since 'ME' the consumer won't be getting paid any of that, then a little less of it when I buy the game will be just fine with me!" -Sheldon Spradling
"Now when it comes down to the money, I have to agree with Mr. Jay Cohen, Take the money. Too many games get cancelled, come out with tons of bugs and glitches, just plain suck, or countless other problems simply because they don't have the money." -Scavar
Most readers were in the middle, begrudgingly accepting ads if they were done well:
"Although I can see [game publishers] getting carried away in their advertising, I think that, if they do, they will listen to complaints and tone it down. I think they blend brands into the games. Example: Crasftman gear in a hunting game, or a computer in a room, off to the side, that says Dell on it. I don't think it will get too crazy." -Layne Henderson
"...for player not to get angry about in-game ads developers must NEVER cross the fine line of subtle ads, like simple items or board/poster in a level. I would personally send a hatemail to the first developer I see put something like 'This loading screen is presented to you by (insert product name)' in their game... my personal opinion about those in-game ads is that it will only benefit a small portion of the games out there. Since for the player to accept that there is ads in his games they have to make sense with the game environment." -Korzen
"The classic question of 'how much is too much?' becomes apparent rather quickly. The rule which I believe developers should go by -- a rule which I've already seen broken by EA and Ubisoft -- is that ads should not be noticeable... An example of this problem is the preponderance of Tag Body Spray adds in GRAW: first of all, the majority of the population in the areas where the game takes place are not nearly wealthy enough to be wasting their money on that kind of product, and second, it's the same ad everywhere. If I saw it once it would be fine, but every billboard in that game has the same ad. Too distracting! .... Here's a statistic I think developers should gather: how many times players shoot in-game advertisements in anger. I know I do that quite a bit." -Jake
Roughly a third of readers think that games shouldn't even go down this road. Many of them assumed that non-intrusive in-game ads today would lead to "roadblock" advertising in the future (like watching a commercial before you get to play.) And most of you already know how to solve this problem: with your wallet. The best way to influence publishers and developers isn't to complain on forums, but simply to refuse to buy games that have obtrusive advertising. Here's what people are saying:
"I don't need any more distraction. There are enough ads when going to a site, do I really need an ad on a product I may not use or for that matter do I want to stop playing a game just to see a advertisement Hell No! Look at what's happened to regular TV? You can't watch a one hour program without 30 minutes of advertising!" -Wolfeyes
"NO!! There's already so much advertising on on TV that I can't watch any cable station for more than five minutes without wanting to hurl at the number of ads I'm hit with... the effect of advertising on TV in most sporting events has brought the continuity of game play to a crawl. These in-game ads are one of the main reasons I refused to buy into BF2142, though I love and continue to play the prior BF2... I can see a point in the near future where a game will screech to a halt in the middle as the players are forced to watch a 30-second 'spot' of advertising. HATE 'EM, HATE 'EM, HATE 'EM!!" -Ken Carroll
"Is there nothing sacred in this world anymore? Is there anything that we can do in this world without the bombardment of big brother putting his hand in it and making money off my experience?" -Steve B
"Let me put it this way, I refuse point blank to buy or play Battlefield 2142 because some little tit in an overstuffed chair needs to buy another expensive suit which he thinks he earned buy targeting advertising at me through his sypware. Don't get me wrong, I have no objection to companies legitimately taking data from my gameplay as long as it benefits any improvements in either the game or the way I play it (AA Tracker for example), where I draw the line is at being informed that in order to play a game I shelled out £30 - £40 of my hard earned money for, I have to let them intrude on my free time by letting them bombard me with the same adverts I ignore in my daily newspaper..." -J. 'Mozartonacid' Reilly
[After a lengthy story about being unable to play Battlefield 2142 without it trying to use his Internet connection] "In short, if I cannot play a single player game offline or online in which I cannot play without my privacy being violated, then I will give up being a gamer at all." -Nathan "Bloodraines" Raines
Opinions were pretty evenly spread, with more people being okay with non-intrusive ads than I thought. What's clear to me is that in-game ads are a tricky proposition for publishers: if they're smart about it, they can find a balance that gamers can get behind. But any abuse of a gamer's trust or time won't hold water. Will the big name publishers be able to walk the line? Time will tell!
Thanks to everyone who wrote in, and sorry I didn't have time to answer each individually.
- Lara Croft Does Montreal -IGN
- Gears of War a Lock for PC -IGN
- More World of Warcraft Tinkering -IGN
- The Warriors Rumbles With Retailers -IGN
- Atari Announces NY Comic Con Line-up -IGN
- Halo 3 Multiplayer Beta FAQ -TeamXbox
- Shane Kim & Phil Spencer Interview: Part I -TeamXbox
- Torque Game Engine Advanced 1.0 Released -TeamXbox
- FEATURE: The Road to a Universal Platform -Next Generation
- Darwinia Dev Heading to Consoles -Next Generation
- Icahn Sells 900,000 Take-Two Shares -GameDaily Biz
- Straight to The Source -GameDaily Biz
- Half-Life - Counter-Strike Beta Update - Planet Half-Life
- Half-Life 2 - Iron Grip Game Day Tournament - Planet Half-Life
- Battlefield 2142 - All Unlocks Weekend Now Live - Planet Battlefield
- Oblivion - Oblivion Mods Update - Planet Elder Scrolls
- Boards: Asus Commando: First Look at a Dream Mainboard - Xbit Labs
- Boards: Asus P5N32-SLI Premium nForce 590 SLI Motherboard - PCStats
- Cases: SilverStone LC14MC HTPC Case - Thinkcomputers.org
- Cases: Thermaltake Mozart HTPC Case - The Tech Zone
- Cooling: GIGABYTE 3D Rocket II CPU Cooler - Virtual-Hideout
- Cooling: Noiseblocker Coolscraper v2.0 CPU Cooler - XS Reviews
- Cooling: Thermaltake TMG A1 Cooler - Bjorn3D
- CPU: Intel Core2 Q6600 CPU - Overclockers Club
- Keyboards: Logitech diNovo Edge Keyboard - XYZ Computing
- Pads: SteelPad S&S mousemat - XS Reviews
- Power Supply: HEC Zephyr 650W Power Supply - PCStats
- Systems: Puget Systems and iBUYPOWER - Anandtech
- Systems: Weird and Wonderful PCs and Mods - THG
- Video: GeForce 8900GTX and 8950GX2 Pricing and Information - Tweaktown
- Video: MSI 8800GTX SLI - T-Break
- Video: Overclocked Gainward Bliss 8800 GTS 320 MB - HW Upgrade
- Video: Seven GeForce 8800 series graphics cards compared - Tech Report
Edited on: February 16, 2007 11:30 AM PST
Chris Taylor: Love the Art!
February 15, 2007
I'll wrap up my coverage of last week's DICE summit with some motivational words from Gas Powered Games' Chris Taylor. If you're a hardcore PC gamer, you might not recognize the name, but you're definitely familiar with his work: the visionary behind Total Annihilation, he reshaped our opinion of what a real-time strategy game should be. More recently his self-started company produced the action RPG Dungeon Siege and followed it up with a sequel. And next week he's dropping the big one: Supreme Commander is hitting store shelves, another reinvention of the RTS on a jaw-dropping scale.
Download the Supreme Commander Demo!
You won't regret it!
But Chris Taylor's presentation at the DICE summit hardly focused on Sup-Com at all. I haven't seen a whole lot of coverage of his talk online, probably because 1. He wasn't giving away any juicy game details and 2. His presentation was more of a free-form conversation about his own (very personal) observations about the process of making games. Still, I thought he raised some big issues and cast some light on the mindset of developers... stuff that I think is worth talking about. And a great way to wrap up a week's worth of DICE coverage.
Chris Taylor has a message for game developers...
Taylor looked at the entertainment industry as a whole and said it was like a giant hand -- four fingers and an oddball thumb. Music, television, movies, and books are the fingers. What makes gaming the oddball? A lot of games -- specifically hardcore games -- make people work. With movies or TV you vedge out on the couch, but games throw obstacles in your way. Taylor agrees it's okay to make games challenging, but why the push to make games so hard?
Taylor argues that if we "really truly want to bring in the rest of the world," that game developers should consider the people who just want to relax and recreate. That's why Solitaire remains so popular as a Windows app. It's easy fun.
My take: I've always considered games to be better categorized as an "activity" than an "entertainment." (That's why I don't think movie reviews and game reviews can ever be written the same way. Movie reviews can focus on story, character, and plot but game reviews first and foremost have to examine the actual experience of play.) Obviously an activity should have puzzles and challenges to keep you interested. But -- in part because of pressure from the hardcore gamers who can blow through a game in six hours -- there's been a tendency for game developers to "up the ante" with increasingly difficult, hard to master games. There's always going to be a market for that (including me!), but it's nice to see companies like Nintendo and people like Chris Taylor consciously trying to bring simple, easygoing fun back to games.
Taylor admits that's he's made a bunch of hardcore titles himself -- Supreme Commander is definitely aimed at people who want to mastermind a complex strategy -- but he made it sound like he turned a corner. He didn't give away any details on his next title, but hinted that it would be very, very different.
As an art form, making great games requires a lot of creativity. On the other hand, the games industry is a business, and Taylor admits its easy to get lost in the business. He talked about how he would stress over royalties and wrangle over contracts with publishers. He bared his soul and confessed that sometime during the creation of his last game he broke down and cried in his office -- "This business is that hard," he admitted. How do you make a great product in that kind of pressure cooker?
The secret, he reiterated again and again, it to "Love the art! ... If you don't love the thing you're making, nobody else will." He continued: "When I walk into Target and look at all the shit [on the gaming shelf], I don't see a lot of people loving the art."
When Taylor founded Gas Powered Games, he worked under the assumption that success in the games industry meant tons of hours on the job. His team put in between 5000 and 8000 hours of overtime in order to ship the game. It was grueling. But the Chris Taylor of 2007, the one who loves the art, has a very different outlook. Health and family come first. He and his Supreme Commander team stopped the continual crunch time and started working normal hours. They discovered that productivity actually started going up. "Creative people don't stop solving problems once they go home," Taylor observed.
The industry as a whole is worried about "quality of life" issues, which came to a head in recent years when employees actually sued Electronic Arts over working conditions. So there's something powerful about a triple-a game developer standing up and saying that you can make really big, innovative games without working yourself to death.
What's next for Gas Powered Games? I grilled Taylor after the show but he's keeping his secrets. However, it's pretty clear that his company's next title will represent a major shift. Don't expect hardcore action or strategy: it sounds like his next project is something aimed at a bigger audience that'll focus on simple, playful fun. Give it up for loving the art! -Fargo
- Enemy Territory: Quake Wars Coming to Consoles -GameSpy
- Players Pack Announced for Rainbow Six: Vegas -GameSpy
- Blockbuster Video Top Ten Video Game Rentals -GameSpy
- Analysts Share Wii and PS3 Expectations -IGN
- Australian Game Charts -IGN
- Blue Dragon Downloads Set to Start -IGN
- Xbox 360 Wireless Receiver For Windows -IGN
- ESA Wants to Blacklist Canada -IGN
- The Races of Shadowrun: Elves -TeamXbox
- Microsoft Responds to Xbox Rewards Program Site Issues -TeamXbox
- Forecast: Next-Gen Game Sales to Reach $13.9bn by 2009 -TeamXbox
- Miyamoto on Game Violence, Innovation -Next Generation
- Guilty Plea from Former Take-Two CEO -Next Generation
- From Rayman to Rainbow Six: The Rise of Ubisoft -GameDaily Biz
- Sims 2 Pets is EA's Best Friend -GameDaily Biz
- Half-Life 2 -Eternal Silence Update - Planet Half-Life
- Half-Life 2 - Insects Infestion Update - Planet Half-Life
- Battlefield 2 - Eve of Destruction Update - Planet Battlefield
- Oblivion - Oblivion Mods Update - Planet Elder Scrolls
- Boards: ASUS Striker Extreme -BIOS Mag
- Boards: ECS KN3 SLI2 Extreme Motherboard - Hardware Secrets
- Cases: NZXT Zero chassis - Hexus
- Cases: Spire SwordFin PC Case - Thinkcomputers.org
- Cases: ThermalTake Bach VX case - DVDHardware
- Cooling: Cooler Master Hyper 6+: Universal Heatpipe Tower - Anandtech
- Cooling: Silverstone SG01 Evolution - Virtual-Hideout
- Cooling: ThermoHawk 200 IR Temperature Meter - ASE Labs
- Cooling: Zalman Reserator 2 Fanless Water Cooling - TechAge
- Mice: Ione Lynx-R7 2.4Ghz Wireless Optical Mouse - Madshrimps
- Mice: Sharkoon Rush Laser Mouse - techPowerUp
- Power Supply: Antec 500W EarthWatts EA500 Power Supply - Bjorn3D
- Power Supply: CORSAIR HX 620W Power Supply - Future Looks
- Power Supply: Ultra X-FinityT 800 Watt PSU - Modders-Inc
- Systems: Area-51 7500 Desktop - I4U
- Systems: Dell Precision 690 Workstation - [H]
- Video: ASUS EN7950 GT - [H]
- Video: MSI NX8800GTX-T2D768E-HD Geforce 8800GTX - PCStats
- Video: nVidia GeForce 8800GTS 320MB - Trusted Reviews
- Video: XFX Interview - Hexus
- Video: XFX 7600GT Fatal1ty Professional Series - Overclockers Club
Edited on: February 15, 2007 11:27 AM PST
Rock Hurts: The Inside Story of Guitar Hero
February 14, 2007
Game developer Harmonix is riding high: the company developed the breakthrough hit Guitar Hero and followed it up with the smash success of Guitar Hero II. They are, in the words of some attendees at the recent DICE summit, "Living the dream." You might be surprised, then, to hear CEO Alex Rigopulos use words like "Depression" "Despair" or "Self Doubt" when he talks about the history of his company. It's true! Harmonix didn't come out of nowhere. Prior to the modest success of Karaoke Revolution or the riot that is Guitar Hero came roughly ten years of struggling.
That struggle was the topic of Rigopulos's DICE presentation, "Behind the Music." Yep, it wasn't all sex, drugs, and Rock n' Roll at Harmonix -- but it's inspiring to know that the people who created one of my favorite games on the market today did so after a decade of swimming uphill. Pull up a chair and I'll summarize Rigopulos's presentation.
Rigopulos and a partner (Eran Egozy) started Harmonix back in 1995. The two had met at MIT, where they studied music composition and computer music at the MIT Media Lab. Together they had come to the same conclusion: playing music, assuming you're good at it, is fun. It's one of the great joys in life. But learning to play music is hard -- it takes years of grinding practice. Many people pick up an instrument only to quit in frustration. So the original goal of Harmonix was this: To use computers to bring the joy of playing music to everyone.
Alex Rigopulos: Stuck With It During the Hard Times
What followed was a string of interesting projects and financial failures. Rigopulos showed a slide of Harmonix's profit and loss from 1995 to 2006 -- it was a dismal valley, only slightly turning to profitability in 2004 or so, then suddenly rocketing off the chart with the release of Guitar Hero. Rigopulos labeled the spike as "The Dream" and then labeled the majority of the chart as "The part before that."
The company specialized in creating what Rigopulos called "Freeform, creative, expressive music experiences" ... that audiences didn't want. The company's first title was a PC CD-ROM called The Axe where players could improvise dynamic music by moving the joystick. The PC algorithmically generated melodies and harmonies based on your input. It was a cool idea but not an entertainment breakthrough (people were usually satisfied after playing around with it for 15 minutes.) Rigopulos described sales of the Axe as "microscopic." Later the company turned that technology into a theme park ride for Disney.
Around '97 or so "music games" like PaRappa the Rapper started to take off in Japan. The gang at Harmonix realized that games would be a great way to get people into music. They put together some demos and Sony backed them: Frequency hit stores in 2001. It got great reviews and really blew away game testers... but sold (in Rigopulos's own borrowed words) "Mouse nuts." So Harmonix invested even more time and effort into the sequel, Amplitude, which was released in 2003 with more recognizable music. It also got high scoring reviews... and it also sold "Mouse nuts." Rigopulos described the swings of hope and depression that his team went through with each successive release.
By the Winter of 2003 the company was scrambling to figure out what to do next. Karaoke Revolution was released for holiday 2003, earning the company plenty of awards but only marginal sales. The developers plunged into self-doubt but didn't give up.
Then a company called Red Octane called out of the blue with an interesting pitch. They were going to make a guitar peripheral for the PS2, and wanted to know if Harmonix would make a game for it.
A brilliant idea? Hardly! Just about everyone assumed it was doomed to fail. Red Octane was a tiny publisher with no track record. The peripheral was huge, the price was high, and peripheral games don't sell. Plus, in an age of hip-hop and techno, people questioned if Rock & Roll even resonated with people anymore. As Rigopulos put it: "Reasonable, rational, clear-headed analysis said we should pass..."
Then he showed a slide of Jimi Hendrix totally rocking out in the glare of spotlights. "But Fuck yeah we wanted to make a rock game!" he admits. So the company built on bringing the joy of music to the masses went all-out to make "not just a guitar game, [but] a ROCK guitar game," with a rock-n-roll ethos. They made ridiculous demands but again and again Red Octane trusted the company's judgment. For example? They demanded a whammy bar. "We don't know how we're going to use it," Harmonix told Red Octane, "But we need it because whammy bars are AWESOME."
Most gamers are familiar with what happened next. Guitar Hero was lauded by the press, but this time it actually took off when it came to sales. After the holiday 2005 release, sales continued to climb even after the holidays were over. To this day, Guitar Hero remains a fixture at parties wherever I go (and if it isn't, I offer to bring it. Guitar Hero is always a hit.) Overnight, Harmonix turned around from a struggling small developer to a major player. (Recently the company was picked up by Viacom/MTV.)
What's unique and inspirational about Rigopulos's talk is that it didn't end there. He pointed out that the feeling of triumph after a hit game is pretty fleeting. Afterwards, the real pressure is on: now that you have a track record, you feel all the more obliged to continue your success. Plus, thanks to the MTV buyout, Harmonix has all the resources the company never had when struggling along on venture capital. There are no excuses! And while Rigopulous wouldn't give us any hints as to what they were, he promised that the company is working on "big, gnarly, and challenging" products down the line.
But at the end of the day, the success of Guitar Hero hasn't changed the "texture" of day-to-day life at Harmonix. The team is still struggling to perfect the blend of games and music. "Humans, by their nature, are seeking creatures," Rigopulos explained. Always striving for the next big thing, always working to make something better.
Doing what I do, I get to meet a lot of developers at various parts of their career, and what really struck me about Rigopulos's presentation is how relevant it is no matter where you are in the industry. If you're part of a struggling start-up, or even an indie developer looking to make it big, knowing that Harmonix scrambled for years from failure to failure but still kept the dream alive is an inspiration to never give up on the passion. And if you're part of a big company that's made a name for itself, it's inspiring to see that success is an ongoing process, not a finish line. The world needs more game developers like Harmonix.
- C&C3 Demo Marching to FilePlanet -IGN
- Bizarre Lets off its Fireworks -IGN
- Team Ico Seeks PS3 Developers -IGN
- Analyst Predicts Strong January for Games -IGN
- Secrets of the Ark Haunts Retailers -IGN
- HD DVD and Blu-ray Disc Copy Protection Fully Hacked -TeamXbox
- Bizarre Studio Update: Boom Boom Rocket -TeamXbox
- Half-Life 2: Team Fortress 2 Screenshots -TeamXbox
- INTERVIEW: Here Comes the Rooster -Next Generation
- Marc Ecko Starts Games Division -Next Generation
- Game Ratings Act Back on Table -Next Generation
- Rolling the D.I.C.E. with Joseph Olin -GameDaily Biz
- The Gamecock Crows -GameDaily Biz
- Half-Life 2 - Firearms 2 Video Update - Planet Half-Life
- Half-Life 2 - Dragonball: Source HDR Updatee - Planet Half-Life
- Battlefield 2142 - Northern Strike Trailer #2 Released - Planet Battlefield
- Battlefield 2 - Desert Conflict Update - Planet Battlefield
- Oblivion - Oblivion Mods Update - Planet Elder Scrolls
- Audio: SteelSeries SteelSound 3H and 4H Headsets - XYZ Computing
- Boards: ASRock AM2NF3-VSTA AMD Athlon 64 Socket AM2 Mainboard - OCInside
- Boards: Asus P5B Deluxe/WiFi-AP P965 - PCStats
- Cases: Zalman Fatal1ty FC-ZE1 - Biosmagazine
- Cases: Zalman Fatal1ty FC-ZE1 - 3DGameMan
- Cooling: Coollaboratory Liquid MetalPad Thermal Interface Material - PCApex
- Cooling: Cooler Master Hyper 6+: Universal Heatpipe Tower - Anandtech
- Cooling: Thermalright Ultra-120 CPU Cooler - PCApex
- Cooling: XIGMATEK 055 Cooler - TechPowerUp
- Mice: Logitech G5 Laser Mouse - GamePyre
- Power Supply: Dark Power PRO 850W & Thermaltake Toughpower 850W - Bjorn3D
- Power Supply: Spire Rocketeer VI 600w SLI Series Power Supply - Virtual-Hideout
- Video: Gainward BLISS 8800 GTS 640MB HDCP Compliant - MVKTech
- Video: HIS X1950 XT 256MB GDDR3 IceQ 3 iTurbo - BFR
- Video: PowerColor X1550 512MB - Overclockers Online
- Video: XFX GeForce 8800 GTS 320MB XXX Edition - HotHardware
Edited on: February 14, 2007 11:32 AM PST
Alternate Reality Games: I'm Not So Sure I Love Bees.
February 13, 2007
They're called "Alternate Reality Games," or "ARGs" for short. What are they? They're a bit like interactive stories that are pieced together by the players, who assemble clues from emails, websites, text messages, forums, or even physical hints in real-world locations. The first ARG to really take off surrounded the release of the movie A.I., but as gamers you're probably more familiar with the "I Love Bees" game that was part of the hype leading up to the release of Halo 2. (You can Download an Anthology DVD of all the I Love Bees Content here on FilePlanet.)
I'll be honest: I'm an ARG doubter. Sure, they're good for getting some press attention, at least now while they're still a novelty. And they can be very, very clever -- actually, they have to be, for reasons I'll get to below. But how many people do they really touch? I Love Bees won awards and got plenty of press, which was probably the point, but even among die-hard Halo 2 fans I'm hard-pressed to find many people who participated in a serious way. Did you? My impression of ARGs is that the noise they generate is high compared to the actual number of people who are entertained.
Jordan Weisman talks about ARGs
At this year's DICE summit two ARG pioneers took the stage to try to change my mind. First up was Jordan Weisman, Chief Creative officer of 42 Entertainment, creators of I Love Bees and other campaigns. As gamers you might be more familiar with Weisman for the killer franchises he helped create, such as MechWarrior or Crimson Skies. Check out my writeup of his 2004 presentation. I might not be hyped up on ARGs, but I'm not ashamed to admit that Weisman is one of my heroes -- a creative genius who manages to be both innovative and successful in whatever industry he plunges into. Also speaking was Michael Smith, the CEO of Mind Candy and creator of the ARG PerplexCity.
I'm still not a convert, but these guys opened my eyes to just how complicated these games are to run, and just how crazy things get once you hit a critical mass of players. ARGs might deserve more credit than I give them.
Alternate Reality Games are a new type of storytelling. Weisman calls it a "Distributed Narrative," and here's how he explains it: first, you make up a great story. Then you create "Evidence" that would exist if the story were true -- classified ads, blogs, voicemail messages, fake websites, etc. Then you throw the story out, leaving only the fragmented evidence behind, which you carefully hide. Finally, you let the audience in from some entry point -- what he called the "Rabbit hole" -- where they can begin tracing through the clues and trying to piece together what happened. Here are some of my notes:
• A Natural Evolution of Storytelling: New forms of storytelling emerged with every leap in technology. Printing presses gave rise to the novel, radio spawned the serial radio drama, and film inspired, well, films. Weisman asked himself, 'What kind of stories will people tell using the Internet?' And ARGs are the result. The Internet is all about sorting through noise to find information, like an archaeologist reassembling a shattered vase from fragments in the dirt.
• "Social Storytelling:" In ARGs, there's no narrator. Instead, as people discover new bits of information, they write the story themselves. The participants become the storytellers.
• The 'Hive Mind:' On the Internet, it doesn't take long to accumulate a stupefying array of talent. Weisman calls this the "Hive Mind." He says if you get 250,000 people together working on a game problem, either they or a friend (or a friend of a friend) will possess any skill or have the answer to any question. Need a latin translation? Need to know the location of a building from a map fragment? Need to identify an obscure mathematical formula? Someone will figure it out. It's "the ultimate problem solving engine," online 24/7, connected, and self-organizing.
• Audiences Segment Themselves: With ARGs, only a small number of players are the "enthusiasts." They're the ones combing through graveyards for leads, lurking by pay phones at 4 AM, or setting up Oracle databases of clues. The rest of the audience are spectators -- they're as entertained by the antics of the hardcore as they are with the unfolding story. Weisman says the tricky part is getting the people in the middle involved: people who want to be active in the story but can't dedicate the time that the enthusiasts can.
• Strangers on the Street: One thing that PerplexCity's founder Michel Smith pointed out is that ARGs give people reasons to interact, particularly in public places. PerplexCity players can wear special buttons that can cause other players to strike up a conversation with you on the street. It's one of the most social forms of gaming.
• Who Plays? According to Smith's demographics, most players are students, the average age is around 26, and there's about a 50/50 ratio of male to female players.
Like I said, I'm still not 'sold' on Alternate Reality Games as a major new entertainment medium, but I have to admit I've got a newfound respect for them. If you have any thoughts on this, you can email me at my super secret email address.
- Kid Icarus Now on Wii Shop Channel -GameSpy
- Enemy Territory: Quake Wars is Console Bound -IGN
- Brunswick Bowling Rolls to Wii -IGN
- Toy Fair 2007: DC Direct's World of Warcraft Figures -IGN
- EA Takes a Shot at Community Building -IGN
- Former GODs Erect Gamecock -IGN
- Xbox Rewards Program Web Site Goes Live -TeamXbox
- Lionsgate Acquires Kane & Lynch Movie Rights -TeamXbox
- WEBZEN Sells China Rights for Huxley for $35 Million -TeamXbox
- Report: PlayStation UK Sales Boss Splits -Next Generation
- Lazard: 25-30% Sales Rise for January -Next Generation
- Sony May Outsource Cell Production -Next Generation
- MSN Learns to AdShare -GameDaily Biz
- Report: GameStop Cracking Down on M-Rated Sales to Minors -GameDaily Biz
- Half-Life 2 - Resident Evil: Twilight Update - Planet Half-Life
- Battlefield 2 - Project Reality v0.5 Post Launch Update - Planet Battlefield
- Battlefield - Battlefield Benchmark: Nvidia 8800 GTS 320MB OC - Planet Battlefield
- Oblivion - Oblivion Mods Update - Planet Elder Scrolls
- Boards: Asus M2-CROSSHAIR Socket AM2 nForce 590 SLI Motherboard - PCStats
- Keyboards: KeySonic 540RF Wireless keyboard - XS Reviews
- Keyboards: Logitech Cordless MediaBoard - CoolTechZone
- Memory: Kingston HyperX 2GB PC2-6400 (DDR2-800) - Legion Hardware
- Power Supply: X-Finity 800W - GWN
- Rigs: Silverstone Sugo mATX DIY Small Form Factor System - Hardcoreware
- Video: BFGTech GeForce 8800 GTS OC 320MB - [H]
- Video: BFG 8800 GTS OC 320MB - I4U
- Video: >Biostar V7603GS21 GeForce 7600 GS V-Ranger - Tech Power Up
- Video: EVGA e-GeForce GTS 320MB Superclocked - NVNews
- Video: Foxconn GeForce 8800 GTS 320MB O.C. - Hexus
- Video: Foxconn 8800 GTS 320MB - GWN
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Spore and the "Joy of Manipulation"
February 12, 2007
Game Designer Will Wright describes his core idea for the game Spore as "Your own personal universe." I've never had godlike powers before (although it's on my list of things to do), but I imagine that building universes is hard. The challenge for Wright's team is to make it easy -- to make it so that anyone can pick up the game and create something incredible.
Last week's DICE summit (see my last few posts) brought Wright up onto the stage, along with four of his top designers, to talk about how they're taking Spore from idea to finished product. As usual, Wright came prepared with easily four hours of material to cram into 40 minutes. I've followed Wright's work for years now (See this lengthy interview or this writeup of his GDC '06 presentation), but when he's on a tear, sometimes he moves so fast he leaves the audience behind. It's like riding a mental roller-coaster, and I mean that in a good way.
So while Wright's look at Spore touched on everything from procedural textures to planetary generation to game prototyping and beyond, I'm just going to focus on one part of the talk: how to create a game where people can create anything they want .... but still make it look good.
Will Wright (at the podium) and his design team.
Work began by breaking down creatures into all the component parts (the art team was literally told "Draw a ton of mouths" or "Draw as many weird alien hands as you can"). Then the team had to build an engine allowing you to stitch them all together (more on that below). The next step sounds easy but is immensely difficult: texturing the creature. In the game industry, "skinning" 3D models is a full-time job. People spend years studying this. But Spore has to do it on the fly. Quigley described the problem as doing the work of a texture artist in 500 Milliseconds.
Eventually artists and programmers worked together to create a system of, in Quigley's words, "Particle agents that crawl over the skin of the creature" painting it different colors. This took six months of work. The end result looks seamless: the player chooses which sort of "script" to run on the creature, and what colors to use, and the game just figures it out. The texturing program locates the spine, the underbelly, etc. and blends the colors accordingly. You want stripes? Click the button and the game will locate the center of the creature and rib it with stripes along its sides. Quigley calls it "Art directing a million incompetents" -- anyone can be an artist with Spore.
By the way, what's nice about developing a new technology like this is that it has multiple applications in a game like Spore. "What we learned from textures applied to planets," Wright explained as the discussion moved to the planetary scale. Each planet is about 8MB of data, but millions of worlds will be available for the player to explore, so the game has to generate them on the fly. Turns out that Spore generates worlds in the same way that it textures animals: little "agents" run around the surface of the planet painting the features on it. They raise and lower terrain, fill in the water, create volcanoes, all according to the laws of some script. Most of the planets you'll find are fairly plausible worlds, but there are also very rare scripts that will run to create "storybook" worlds with strange candy-like spiral mountains and other bizarre features.
Often little things make a big difference. For instance, in the early parts of the game the player is just a tiny organism swimming in a 2-dimensional "soup." Through experimentation, the team discovered that if you gave the organism an eyeball that follows the mouse cursor around, it "feels" more responsive to the movement commands you're giving it. (Plus, it makes the organism more cute.) Designers like Gingold discover these things through trial-and-error, by building lots of prototypes and seeing what "feels" right.
It gets a lot more complicated once the player is starting to model things in 3D. The problem is thorny: how do you manipulate a 3D model with 2D input (your mouse?) Obviously people who work in computer aided drafting or 3D modeling have made this happen, but you don't want your players to have to have a technical degree in order to enjoy making a critter. Solving this thorny problem was Gingold's job. If you grab the joint of a creature's leg and move your mouse left or right, where does the leg move in 3D space? Where should it move?
The only way to figure that out was to build a lot of prototypes and to play with them. Gingold talked about bringing to the player the "joy of manipulation." Eventually something will resonate with the design team and playtesters. Gingold described his iron-clad acid test for a prototype: "If you don't notice it sucks, it must be good."
But the main message I took away from the presentation was the lengths the team is going through to take something very complex (building and skinning 3D creatures, creating whole worlds, etc.) and to make it incredibly simple for the player. Wright knows that Spore has to be "something players want to do that's easy to do. This is not a Word Processor." And judging from his panel of designers, everyone on the team is focused on that. I only wish more games were so focused on bringing out our primal urges to create and play.
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Edited on: February 12, 2007 11:06 AM PST
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