Archive for November, 2013

Apple Made For iPhone (MFI) Game Controllers

Thursday, November 21st, 2013

The first two MFi game controllers have been released.

The Moga Ace Power, as well as the Logitech Powershell. The two controllers are similar but the Logitech offering does not include analog sticks. From the pictures that are available, the Logitech product may actually be higher quality, but I ordered the Moga one anyway, simply because I like the look of it a bit better, and because I want the analog sticks.

It’s worth noting that I do a lot more gaming on my iPad than on my phone, so I’m not sure how much I’ll use this other than for testing. I’m definitely very excited for a bluetooth connected version when that appears.

I mentioned on twitter that I think this is a big deal. If I’m right, we’ll all know it in a year or two, but I think Apple will continue to eat the big guys’ lunch in the gaming industry, and the relatively quiet announcement that apple was introducing a controller API in iOS 7 was essential for them to more directly compete with Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo. Obviously, these controllers, priced at $99 each are not (yet) cheap enough to be mass market, but of course that’s also pretty typical of Apple products in general, so that may not matter. My prediction is that we’ll just see more and more of these hit the market, and the only indication that Apple products are continuing their domination of the gaming industry will be their slow proliferation into the market. A lot is talked about the competition between Apple’s app store and the Google Play store, but hardly anyone talks (except maybe abstractly, or in passing) about how the app store is competing with the console market. (OK, yes, some people are definitely talking about it, but it doesn’t seem like it’s in the public consciousness yet.)

Pro Tip: Do not order directly from Moga, as you’ll pay a minimum of $5 shipping, and you can order directly from Apple for the same price with free shipping. Also, at least the Moga is already showing up in some physical Apple stores, so you could just head out to one of those, or check availability online and then head out to one of those.

(Original news via GameIndustry International, but I also saw this on TA.)

Practice in NYC, day 3

Wednesday, November 20th, 2013

The second FULL day of Practice was easily just as amazing as the first. I never really finished extolling the virtues of the first day, and I’m highly unlikely to go back and flush out my previous post with more details, so here’s a disclaimer that this post will be similarly unable to adequately describe how compelling and wonderful I found the conference experience. If you want to get a sense of it, probably easiest would be to scroll back through the NYC Game Center’s tumbler, where a lot of quotes and some screenshots were posted. I understand that eventually the talks themselves will be posted.

Michael Brough started the morning by talking about roguelikes. It was interesting, (if a bit un-focused), but I would much rather have heard him talk about his process. He only casually mentioned tools he’d created for art (and music?), and I absolutely wanted him to go into detail about those. The “slides” of his talk were mostly just screenshots from various roguelikes, none of which even remotely approach the beauty and glitch-glory of his own creations (even the screenshot of his game(s) didn’t adequately show off the graphics, I didn’t think, and video would have done a much better job). I am a huge admirer of his work, so if you are reading this and aren’t familiar, at least download Glitch Tank or the more recent 868-HACK from the app store. If you have a PC, a lot of his older games are also available for download from his website.

If the first day was influenced by Warren Specter’s talk “about” emergent gameplay versus scripted gameplay, the second day seemed (to me) “about” the second talk, which was about Nordic LARP, by Cecilia Dolk and Martin Ericsson, two of the organizers for a LARP based on Battlestar Galactica called Monitor Celestra. Their talk was highly entertaining and really compelling. (I saw a lot of tweets along the lines of “I’ve never wanted to larp before, but this makes me want to.”) They said a lot about crafting experience, and it was clear to me that the quality of their LARP was what made it extremely compelling. Similar to the generative gameplay concept, they argued that you cannot script a LARP, you merely script the rules and framework, and hope for the best. It sounds like Celestra was a huge success, and they are going to help bring the experience to the US in the next year or so. (And look for copy-cat LARPs that use similar concepts to allow us to “experience” many other fictional worlds in the future. I’ve got my fingers crossed for a disney Star Wars LARP, which there is some evidence to suggest might be in the works.)

The final talk of the day called back to LARPing with references to a dinner theater in which you play the prisoner’s dilemma in order to “move up” to the spots where you get better quality food.

One of the best aspects of the conference (that I have yet to really even mention) was hanging out with all the other incredible game designers in the generously allotted time between talks (left open intentionally for this purpose). My lunchtime discussion was decidedly influenced by the Celestra LARP talk, and we spent probably an hour discussing LARP, role playing, and the various other ways that games and life overlap.

After lunch there was a three-part discussion of user-testing, which diversely included someone working on League of Legends, someone who works on the Assassin’s Creed series at Ubisoft, and Naomi Clark, who interviewed dozens of indie developers for her portion. I won’t say much about this, except that it was great, and to link to Naomi Cleark’s slide deck, which is absolutely chalk-full of good advice for indies.

Finally, my talk of the day award, (IMO) and possibly the talk of the conference, goes to Robert Yang, who essentially did a cultural reading of the Half-Life source code. I couldn’t possibly do it justice, but among the many surprising and beautiful insights he shared were the fact that the door of the train in the opening sequence of the game is actually another train, as well as the observation that “smell” in Half-Life is actually a “sound”. (You’ll probably need to watch the talk to understand either of these statements.) Let it suffice to say that his talk was full of cultural and political references, and also imaginative insights like “Half-Life is the Myst of video games”. He called for more closer examinations of source code in the future, recommending the book 10 PRINT, and the works of Fabien Sanglard, who has done some writeups of the source of a lot of the id software releases. Yang is clearly a lover of originality and beauty in video games, and his passion for both was quite compellingly at the foreground of his talk.

In conclusion, I cannot overstate how compelling and positive I found the experience of going to Practice 2013. I will almost certainly try and go again next year, and I hope that many of the people I made contact with will become long-term relationships. The game development industry is quite fragmented and sometimes feels so huge that it’s a bit like sailing in the ocean. It takes a long time to get anywhere, and in the mean time you probably won’t see anyone on your journey. It’s nice to find a place like Practice, some kind of pirate’s cove or something, where a bunch of similar ships are gathered, at least for a little while.

Practice in NYC, day 2

Sunday, November 17th, 2013

The morning lineup just blew me away. The day started with Warren Spector, who basically made a long and somewhat impassioned argument for emergent systems in games. He argued against scripting specific gameplay paths in favor of giving your players a lot of freedom of choice. He repeatedly said he wasn’t making qualitative judgements, and that he (sometimes) enjoyed games that didn’t do this, but these apologies probably felt pretty flat for proponents of games without open-ended and emergent qualities. I was pretty active on twitter yesterday, and quoted him as saying “I’m not saying games without emergent gameplay are bad… I wouldn’t call them games really.” (This was an actual quote.) He somewhat cheekily finished the talk in a rush, saying “Games are good, simulated games are better.”

Someone on twitter called his speech preaching to the choir (early on), but other tweets later made it clear that was decidedly not what was happening. I think there is a small but very passionate group here who feel that games can (and should) exist on narrative alone, or rather that the quality of “experience” is all that matters. I think my tastes fall pretty clearly with Warren on this issue, but I can see the other argument too. I think there’s a place for those games, sure, but I wish more giant AAA titles were emergent, and I don’t think I’m particularly interested in making games without those properties myself.

Eric Zimmerman, who more or less moderated and announced all the speakers, called Warren out at the end of the talk, asking for those proponents who had been vocal on twitter to speak up in person and challenge this viewpoint. Barely anyone did, and nobody (in my opinion) made any real challenging or compelling arguments.

As an aside, “action puzzle” games decidedly qualify as emergent, while “static” puzzle games are basically the exact opposite. (Possibly explaining why I still haven’t put out Action Chess Puzzle, even though it’s pretty far along in development. Designing the puzzles themselves was so tedious for me that I ended up writing a puzzle generator to try and get out of the task entirely.

This theme, emergent versus scripted gameplay (even if this isn’t, as some argued, an either/or dichotomy), continued throughout the morning and the rest of the day, almost as if it’d been planned. It was definitely continued on Twitter, but each of the speakers had a Q&A at the end, and in those too, this argument popped up over and over again.

Robert Seater, who I’ve been hanging out a bit with (thorough sheer proximity and the discovery that we share quite a lot of favorite board games), expressed frustration this morning that this argument is not particularly applicable to board games, but I think Rob Daviau‘s brilliant talk later in the day was directly relevant. He talked about designing the game Risk Legacy, and in addition to being one of the more charismatic speakers, he was clearly a board game design veteran with a lot of great advice as well as anecdotal experiential wisdom to impart.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. I don’t have time to write about everything (and there is so much I wanted to talk about that I haven’t gotten to yet!!!). I skipped over the 3-part talk immediately following Warren Spector’s talk ostensibly about “strategy games”. Soren Johnson exceeded my expectations (having mentioned his stint at Zinga in his bio), and struck me as particularly smart. Keith Burgun‘s portion had a slow start, but eventually he got into some really nice design advice.

I’ve got to cut this short, because I’m watching Michael Brough talk about roguelikes, and that’s pretty distracting.

Practice in NYC, day 1

Friday, November 15th, 2013

I am in NYC this weekend for the NYC Game Center’s Practice 2013 conference. It’s two days (and change) of game design talks, and I’m super psyched about it. Here’s a brief recap of day .5 today:

Yesterday – Tourism
I got into town yesterday, and got some tourism in with my friend KR and her husband Dan. KR and I took in an audio tour of the statue of Liberty, and got to climb to the top of the “pedestal” on which she stands, looking up her skirt. (She’s standing on a glass ceiling!) The guy who worked there gave us some interesting factual tidbits including the fact that the inside of the statue is black because of “our friend asbestos”, and as they remove that in the upcoming years, the inside of the statue will eventually turn as green as the outside. I am now a fount’ of Statue of Liberty knowledge (though I will likely soon forget it all) and it’s got a much more interesting history than I’d imagined previously.

Getting There
I slept in today, and eventually got to Greenwich Village around 1 pm, but the email said this afternoon’s event started at 3:30. (Playtesting and board games until 5:30!) So I hung out for a while at the nearby Monument park, avoiding the homeless-looking chess players (it’s a bit sad to me that they all appeared to be over the age of 50), and instead sitting on a bench people watching, listening to a pretty amazing saxophonist, and eavesdropping on one side of a tarot card reading by a man wearing a pointy silver hat and cape. Eventually I wandered into a coffee shop called Think Coffee, and lost myself in Oceanhorn for an hour or so. (Prognosis on Oceanhorn: MUST PLAY!!!) I looked up and it was almost 4, so I headed to the location.

Unfortunately I then figured out that the games and playtesting were over in Brooklyn, at the actual NYC Game Center. Fortunately that was only a 15 minute train ride away.

NYU Game Center
The Game Center space is pretty sweet, and there were lots of folks crammed into their “game library” playing a bunch of different games, many of them on machines that are clearly permanent, but several people were demo-ing their own wares on laptops or iPads. There was only one board game being played, a werewolf-like (why are these so popular now!?!), and when I sat down to maybe get in on the next game, it was explained to me that all the cards had different abilities, which you had to memorize, because the rules were in German, and there wasn’t that much time for the next game, so maybe they didn’t want any new players, thank-you-very-much. It was honestly just fine with me, although the game did appear to have more interesting mechanics than your average guess-who-is-who, but Eric Zimmerman, who was organizing, was very apologetic about it afterward, which was nice, and probably as a result, agreed to break out his new game Quantum, so I could at least get a look at it, even if we didn’t really have time to play a full game. (I am hoping to get a game in this weekend sometime. I think it looks very promising even if there is the occasional die roll.)

After that, a group of about 7 or 8 of us took the train together back to Manhattan.

Practice Begins
We got to the venue and got our badges with only ten or fifteen minutes of mingling before everyone filed into the auditorium for the first session.

Well, actually before the first session, this pretty amazing video played:

(Hysterical.)

Then (after some preamble), the first session was by two female break dance event organizers (and themselves breakdancers) explaining some of the game mechanics of break dance competitions. I’m sure I was not the only person in the audience to be surprised that there are international competitions, or that a one-on-one competition is referred to as a cypher. (Was totally not aware of this meaning for the word, though apparently — at least according to wikipedia — it is also used with similar meaning in poetry slams.)

Following the talk, there was a party / reception featuring a demonstration of some of the breakdancing, as well as an open bar (so I could feel doubly slothful). There are some pictures on the NYU Game Center blog, where discerning viewers can probably find some entertainingly candid photos of me.

There were a bunch of games set up for multiplayer fun, and I particularly enjoyed a 2D top-down capture-the-flag game called Slash Dash.

I also had a really great talk with fellow (but former) Minnesotan Ben Johnson, of Babycastles. We both agree that the Twin Cities is rife with potential for game developers and art to collide and make spectacular games.

The Subway
I left with a small crowd of fellow attendees heading toward the subway, to be greeted by this street-performing duo. I think everyone else got on a train before this started though, and I may have been the only Practice attendee to witness how awesome it was:

Unicorn app icons

Wednesday, November 13th, 2013

This is totally random, but like a week ago I was (as I often am) just looking at random games in the app store. This particular day, I was struck by how many games (several in a row, completely by coincidence) featured Unicorns in their app icon. Here’s a random sampling:

Wondercorn: A Unicorn's Magical Journey to Pleasure Mountain by Dana Bissett

Magical Unicorn Expo Pro by Blair Wheadon

An Iron Unicorn vs Attack Robots Game

Fairy Unicorn Race : The quest for the mountain of the sun

bubble_unicorn

little_magic_unicorn

Amazing Princess Unicorn Kingdom Adventures

A Unicorn Fantasy - A Fairy Kingdom Castle Adventure Game

You’ll note the stylistic differences. (I far prefer the hand-drawn ones to the photorealistic ones.) Just a reminder that I was not actually looking or searching for unicorn games when I discovered these. Seriously. (Yes it’s possible I spend too much time browsing the latest game releases on app shopper.) No, that came later, after I realized this was such a rampant trend.

unicorn_rush It was then that I discovered my friend / developer acquaintance Ken (of Mind Juice Media) had released his game Unicorn Rush. (I’ve met him now a couple of times at 360 iDev and played this one a little over two years ago. Looks like it’s been out for over half that time!)

Also that the “unicorn genre” is so saturated as to include not just one, but several zombie/unicorn crossover titles!

zombie_unicorn

A Zombie Unicorn Story

Unicorn Zombie Apocalypse PRO


I also discovered that to try and be “inclusive” and show a representative sampling of unicorn app icons would not only be foolish, but probably take me days to compile. There are literally dozens if not hundreds of apps with unicorn icons. Of course, it’s possible, maybe even likely that most or all of these titles are just trying desperately to capitalize on the success of Robot Unicorn Attack, a game so successful that it not only has a freemium sequel, but also spawned “Heavy Metal” and “Christmas” editions:

Robot Unicorn Attack

Robot Unicorn Attack 2

Robot Unicorn Attack Heavy Metal Edition

Robot Unicorn Attack Christmas Edition

The earliest unicorn app store experience I can remember was discovering that Minnesota’s own Mono had created an app that allowed you to make yourself into a unicorn, called Younicorn. That was back at the end of ’09, and I remember the link getting passed around the office, and some brief (but lively!) discussion about how easy it would have been to make, and yet, none of us thought of it!

Younicorn

Game Design: For Science

Tuesday, November 5th, 2013

zooniverseSo, I’ve been following the Zooniverse projects for a while now, ever since the retired “Galaxy Zoo” project. For those not familiar, the Zooniverse projects (you can see a list of current projects on that link to their homepage) are basically crowdsourcing science. Each one takes a relatively focused (and menial) task that would take a researcher or research team years to complete, and makes a pretty simple web interface that allows “citizen scientists” to participate. The tasks all appear to be (at least from my limited experience — I’ve only done two or three of them) mostly image recognition of one kind or another. Interestingly, in the Zooniverse Reddit AMA (ask me anything) this afternoon, I learned that one of their retired projects was used to successfully train a computer to perform the tasks that the humans were completing, and thus, the project is no longer needed. That is some pretty cool computer SCIENCE.

Until today, I hadn’t given much thought into the people behind Zooniverse. But when I did think about it, I sort of assumed it was like rocket science — in other words, impossibly hard tech-wizardry. Reading the AMA where the team answered questions about quite a lot of their projects and process was for me a humanizing experience, striking home for me that, much as scientists are real people, (not superhumans), so too are the people who make really amazing software that advances science (also not superhumans).

As an aside, I think I have sort of an inferiority complex when it comes to “real” scientists. Not that I don’t know a few here and there, I do have a healthy smattering of PHDs in my facebook friend feed, (who for some reason don’t count). I think of “real science” as this thing that you have to be WAY smarter than me to do. When, in reality — or anyway my newly rationalized version of reality — I am now trying to internalize the idea that much of scientific discovery is not “breakthroughs” and genius-level eureka moments, but rather made up of tiny incremental observations and discoveries. Maybe this putting scientists on a pedestal comes from reading too much science fiction where there is a lot of hand-waving around what happens when the big breakthroughs are made. (This is actually something I do occasionally fault science fiction for, one of my pet peeves is when some near-future science fiction novel’s plot hinges on one or more breakthroughs that completely disrupt modern society, yet we’ve never heard of them before.)

Anyway, the Zooniverse projects aren’t quite gamefied, at least not in a competitive sort of way. I’ve “helped” a bit with a couple of the latest ones, and some of them give you some nice stats about how many images you’ve helped classify, and that sort of thing, which could be used to create a leaderboard or achievements, but the messaging around all the projects is much more about how you are helping further science than about how you can score more points or get the next gold star.

Screen Shot 2013-11-04 at 11.57.37 PMWhich brings me to my next example of crowdsourced science, the far more gamefied “puzzle” game, Phylo. Phylo is played by moving squares around the gameboard, matching their colors vertically, and trying to optimize (or eliminate) empty space between them horizontally. The link between science and what you are doing in Phylo is a bit harder to grasp than in the Zooniverse projects, but as near as I can tell, the colored squares represent genetic sequences of DNA or RNA. From the project’s about page: “By taking data which has already been aligned by a heuristic algorithm, we allow the user to optimize where the algorithm may have failed.” The game is interesting at least, to the puzzle gamer in me, if not actually fun (it would probably be considered fun to some people, I can’t quite decide why I don’t think it’s fun, even though it’s got that “just one more game” draw for me), and they have packaged up the game with a leaderboard and “levels” (that all represent sequences that need matching). There is even an end-game condition, whereby you have to meet the “par” set by the computer algorithms before you can complete each game.

So back to my observation that scientists, or at least the computer programmers who help scientists are not superhuman, and my final link-observation that much of the Zooniverse code is up on github. This means that, if I had the time to spare and inclination (and an image cataloging project I wanted to crowd-source) I could probably get a pretty decent head start by checking out what they’ve already put together. That observation led to my thinking about whether the power of lots of humans playing could be harnessed to create the ultimate video game. A kind of crowd-sourced game design. I imagine a sort of branching-path puzzle game where at the root node, the game is in its simplest form, (and probably least creative). Then, you give the player a choice of whether they want x feature, or y feature. You measure how many people chose x vs y, and you make games x and y also, so you can measure how long players “stick with” both. (One assumption here is that a “sticky” game is good game design.) You could build this incrementally, so maybe in the beginning only a few branches are “built out”, just to have some content, and then you keep building branches, ideally in direct response to additional user feedback or surveying. Wouldn’t that be fun? The problem is that of course you need to generate the “branch ideas” from somewhere. Maybe you also let the players contribute ideas that also get voted on. (A sort of “other” survey answer.) Dunno, it was just a thought. Might be fun tho.