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It’s been a hell of an year for the gaming industry, and specially for us, gamers, since this year has been full of really amazing titles (Braid rocks!). But this post is not to make a retrospective about this year (we will do that, eventually) but to talk about one of the favorite traits of every game censoring institution: Stupidity Incoherence.

Have you ever thought about what it takes for a game to be considered Mature or Adults Only? If one given game has violence, killing, beating, drug use, strong language, drunk driving and everything else that is bad for people, this game is considered “Mature”. Ok, I have nothing against that, children shouldn’t be playing these games (or should they?). But if you get a game that contains sex (which is very good to people) scenes, it will no doubtly be given an “Adults Only” label. Even if it’s not explicit sex, if it’s just some soft “sexy” scenes like Mass Effect, people will be talking about it for months!

Come on! What’s so wrong with sex? This is the 21st century! We don’t have to listen to the church people telling us that sex before marriage is bad! That’s okay if for whatever reason you don’t want your son to watch porn (although he does it anyways, welcome to the Internet), but sensuality and romance go way beyond looks and kisses, and sometimes they are necessary to tell a story or to give the game the proper  impact.

I’m not writing this to stand for porn games as much as I’m not standing for gratuitous violence in games. It’s that game ratings should be more coherent while trying to avoid children to play video games. Separate what is bad for them and what is not.

What’s wrong with nipples anyways?!

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Leroy is deeply absorbed in a level of the latest blockbuster video game. It is not until several minutes have passed that he notices a strident ringing noise and pauses the game to answer the phone.

Hm? Hello? Hey, Jenkins, what’s up? Hm? Yeah, I’ve been playing it too, the whole weekend. I got the V.I.P. Special Collector’s Edition Plus, it comes with trading cards, a miniature squid and a portable booby trap! It’s awesome! Ah, you’ve rented it? I see… Yeah, I was playing it just now… You’re stuck, hm? That’s too bad, I’ve already finished it, and now I’m doing a second run for the achievements. Say, do you want me to help? Hm… No, sure, it’s cool. Just a sec, I’ll grab the extension.

Leroy runs to get the cordless phone from the base in the kitchen, then hangs up the other phone in the living room, and finally sits in front of the TV with the phone on his shoulder and a controller in his hands.

Meanwhile, Jenkins is trying to resume their conversation from the other side of the line.

Leroy, you there, man? Leroy? Can’t believe this sucker just hung up on… Er, hey, man! No, I was, er… just talking to the maid here, man… So, you’re gonna help me or what? Ok then, let’s do it. I’m stuck in Act 4, Level 3, SubLevel 16 of the Orc campaign. Yeah, sure I’m playing an Orc, so what? What is that? Magic? No, I didn’t even know this game had magic in it. The Elf campaign, you say? Ah, screw it, man, I ain’t playing no gay Elf. So, you’re reloading a saved game in that level, eh? I guess it’s my luck that you have saved just there… What? You mean you have a saved game in EVERY level? Geez, you’re weird, man…

Jenkins is already sweating in anxiety while he waits for his friend to find the right saved game. He had refused to call Leroy until now; he wouldn’t admit to be beaten by a silly puzzle in the game. Why did they put puzzles in games anyway? As far as Jenkins knew, he would be happy to smash skulls and tore bellies apart for 40 hours straight without having to think about it…

Meanwhile…

Hm, calm down, Jenkins! It’s loading already… Yeah, these games with long loading times, they suck… Ok, I’m there. So, what’s keeping you from getting through the level? Ah, I remember that quest… You have to get the magic diaper from the vampire that you met two levels before… Then you use it on the grapevine you find in this level to produce… raisins! Then you just give them to the guard and he’ll let you pass. Hm? How did I know that? Well, I just followed the clue that the zombie nurse gave me in the last cutscene… What? You skip all the cutscenes? Are you retarded or what? Yeah, I know the game is not supposed to be a movie, but… Ok, it worked? Great! Well, now I’ll get back to my game, I’ve got to get the “Fell through all the holes” achievement… Later, dude!

— glopes

Hey, What’s 1Up?

This week has not been lousy on news from the games industry, and I’d like to share some thoughts about a couple of them that caught my eye.

Earlier this week, we have learned that LittleBigPlanet has been slightly delayed. I don’t think it is all that terrible (after all, it’s just one week, and there’s plenty of exciting game releases in-between to fill the blank), but the reason for the delay is, at the very least, curious.

It seems that every shipped unit of the game has been recalled because one of the licensed soundtracks takes a couple verses from the Qur’an to use as lyrics. Sony probably feared it could become a concern among Muslims, which are not famous for approving the use of the sacred text in such fashion.

Although my initial reaction towards such sensitive topics is often a conservative one, I think Sony has overreacted this time. I don’t think it is such a big deal as to force the postponing of such a major PS3-exclusive title prior to the holiday season. Besides, they could always have patched the game, which would already cover the vast majority of users. They have also risked that their measure be seen as a form of censorship over the composer’s work, which I have also read people arguing about. I don’t think that’s the case, either.

Anyway, this whole episode got me thinking: in a global community so dense and connected as ours, it seems to me that there will always exist one person or group of people potentially offended by anything we do. An absolutely unreliable source even copied me an e-mail received by the customer support team from the project I used to work on, the action MMOG Taikodom, just released in Brazil. Since it is another example of what I was talking about, I took the liberty of pasting it here:

Dear Taikodom designers,

We are P.E.N.I.S., or The “Phallic-Entities-Not-Included” Society, a non-profit organization engaged in eliminating phallic figures from popular media. Phallic figures, for the ignorant of you that don’t know it, are any forms or symbols that resemble the external reproductive organs of male mammals, also known as “penises”, “dicks” or “sausages”.

We have observed that the spaceship called “Bullfrog”, featured in your game, is very much like a big, glowing penis, and thus violates our firm beliefs and hinder us from achieving a penis-free society that our founders have always dreamt of.

Therefore, we demand that you act immediately and remove such figures from your game, and also provide a public apology for using penises as symbols of status in your MMOG. Failure to comply will result in the loss of the multitude of Taikodom players that are members of our organization.

Most sincerely,
Christopher Unt, P.E.N.I.S. CEO
cunt@penis.org

PS: Please refer further correspondence to our public relations manager, Steve Uck.

Another very interesting piece of news is: Bioware, EA and Lucasarts have announced their long-in-development MMOG… and it’s Star Wars: The Old Republic! Although it was an easy guess, I cannot help to get very excited about this game, and even more from what I read about the story elements Bioware is trying to incorporate.

It is also very reassuring to see them criticize the current generation of MMOs and propose to evolve the formula: I feel very much like them. That probably explains why I have not been captured by any particular massively-multiplayer title yet. Maybe this one will do it for me!

— glopes

Get1Up! And running!

Hello there! Well, since Gilliard was pretty excited with the new blog and jumped right into writing what was in his mind for the last 2 years, I will be doing the introductions. My name is Rafael Kuhnen, I’m a game designer with about 3 years of experience in the industry, the junior kid of the crew. My experience is monstly in MMO’s but I’m really excited about going to new grounds really soon. The guy from which you just read that insightful post is called Gilliard Lopes, a programmer, designer, producer. Our veteran with about 10 years of experience. We began our carreer in the brazilian videogame industry – and trust me when I say it ain’t an easy place to start – but only started working together about 2 years ago. Since then, we noticed that we had a lot in common regarding favorite games, and game design perspectives in general. One year ago, we wrote our first article for gamasutra, about game design cognition. We liked so much that we decided to find a place to write whatever we wanted about games. And here we are.

We believe that the best way to learn game design is to share your knowledge and experience with others. We belive that it is hard, if not impossible, to teach someone exactly how to design a good game, for there is no such formula. We are writing this blog to learn with you as much as you can learn with us. Feel free to comment and contact us about any post, and to suggest subjects also.

Welcome to Get1Up! And get yourself a life! 😉

Rafael

PS: Some of the early posts are from our previous blog, called Miyamoto Generation, and we decided to share those with you too. They are more than a year old so don’t mind the outdated references.. 😉

Interactive Ranting

Much has been said about video games being nothing more than the interactive counterpart of storytelling mediums such as books or movies. Although I feel this is a crude simplification, a limiting definition for games, I have to hand it to the members of our community that have somewhat embraced this and called our industry “interactive entertainment”. I think it is ok to focus on interactivity as it is a defining feature of the games medium; let’s just not forget that it is not the only one. But maybe I’ll tackle that in another post.

Today let’s look at interactivity straight on. Interaction (not to be confused with “iteration”) is the occurrence of a relationship between two subjects, the actor and the medium. Some (but not necessarily all) interactions are reciprocal, in that two similar interactions occur between the same subjects, with the agent of the first being the medium of the second, and vice-versa. A kiss can be viewed as such. It is important to note, though, that a reciprocal interaction may not be perceived in the same way by the two subjects; a kiss, although reciprocal, can provide very different feelings to each of the kissers. It is of utmost importance to take into account the context of each participating subject when working with interactivity theory.

The need to study the context also helps to explain why psychology and cognitive theory are such important fields in game design. Understanding the context in which the player is inserted at any given point during game play is crucial for driving rich interactive experiences with our games. But understanding is just one fraction of our problem; we should press ourselves to be able to do the Matt Parkman thing, and start manipulating the player’s state of mind in an effective way during the game. Comedy and horror are genres that rely heavily on their ability to “set the mood”, but otherwise I think this is often overlooked as a very powerful game design resource. Also, if we manage to do it really well, we can create a really lasting impression on the player that she carries out of the game and into her life as a whole. Several games on the top of my personal favorites list have left their mark on me in that way.

While talking about interaction in a deep sense, I find it impossible not to think of Braid. Jonathan Blow’s masterpiece is very effective in setting the player’s state of mind in the beginning of each new world, such that he will be able to work through the puzzles that present themselves later on. And the means by which the game manages to demonstrate each world’s features are simple, and beautiful, because it all occurs inside the game’s rules system. You learn how to play by playing it. I think this is a fundamental concept behind Blow’s game design philosophy.

But I would rather raise my concern over some comments I have been reading about the role of indie games, and about taking the principles behind Braid to an extreme. Take for example, The Marriage. It is an elegant game in which the author tried to portrait game rules as art, and managed to isolate them from anything that could get in the way, such as fancy graphics or sound. I think it is an acknowledgeable effort, but I am scared by the extreme generalization of the concept. Braid and The Marriage show us that gameplay should be treated as legitimate art in itself, but I don’t think that the art in video games is restricted to gameplay. Music is art, and music in movies is still art in its own right; but one wouldn’t say that music is the only source of art in a movie.

In that sense, I disagree with comments made by Blow and others regarding Bioshock. Even though the so-called “choice system” turned out to be shallow, with the binary endings that even Ken Levine admittedly disapproves, I still find the game very compelling, and it has certainly left its mark on me and several friends of mine. In terms of the gameplay alone, I agree that Bioshock is definitely lacking, and the choice system having been a much hyped feature before release only adds to that feeling. But the art direction, the story, the sound design, the general mood of the game, and the presentation, all sum up to provide a deeply engaging experience that got me on the edge of my seat during the whole ride, and left a very strong impression afterwards. It made me think of moral choices in the real life, even though those choices did not end up being satisfied in the game. It made me ask myself “What if all this had actually happened? Which side would I find myself on, given the circumstances?”. And it left a similar impression in several people to whom I have talked, so I cannot think of it as any less artsy than the other games around that did it mostly with gameplay alone.

So, I have covered a lot for one post, I have touched interaction, but also the seminal question “Are games art?”. I would like to talk a little more about the context of the player, how it evolves during gameplay, and how we can drive it with game rules and content, but that will be left for a future post. Please do sound off your opinions in the comments. See you next time!

glopes

Hello there, long time no see. We have been pretty busy at work for a while, and that kept us from writing something. But as all developers would agree with me, there is no better way to learn, than working, and one of the reasons we created this blog in the first place, is to share and discuss what we learn about games, from playing and crafting them.

What about Challenge

What do we play games for? Challenge? Alright, that was a pretty easy answer considering that’s the topic of this article. But we must remind that’s not the only answer, not even the main answer. We play games to have fun, and challenge CAN (and not MUST) be part of the fun. I can steal a car in Grand Theft Auto and cruise around the city and have plenty of fun, and not being challenged a single bit, can’t i?.

To be challenged, a player must first WANT to be so. If a challenge is not interesting, he won’t bother. Second, the player MUST be rewarded when he overcomes a challenge, and the reward must be proportional to the challenge. How would you feel, after an epic battle against the fierce Great Dragon of the Silver Mountain of the North who can melt mountains with his breath and crush entire cities with the flap of his wings, you are awarded with a pair of leather boots with the “amazing” property of letting you absorb 1 point of acid damage. Well, I would definitely curse the designers!

The player must feel capable of overcoming the challenge. Even when he fails, he must feel that he is capable if he tries a bit harder. Incredibly hard games come from the mistake of measuring the difficulty of the game by the skills of developers or even veteran players of a game genre. On the other hand, if the game is too easy, the fun factor will be extinguished by the moment the player is not enjoying the “cruise” anymore.

What about Punishment

This one is simple. Punishment is used on animals (including human beings.) to tell “Don’t you ever do that again!”. If the player is punished, he feels that he did something wrong and probably won’t do that again. If you take something from the player that he is not expecting to lose if he tries something, you are punishing him. Why would I ever “play” a game to be punished? What do we play games again? Oh, right, fun… challenge…

The balance is somewhere out… there?

Some would argue that punishment is sometimes necessary to create challenge. Although i would be glad to discuss that, i cannot agree right away. If you are punishing the player just for the sake of it, that’s bad. “You did not equip your Mega Ultra Blaster Godlike Cannon of Doom, so you will die over and over because there is no other way to beat the game’s Boss.” Does that sound like fun? Not to me it doesn’t. The challenge there was not the Boss, but the decision of equipping the mighty cannon. You can’t punish the player for a decision like that. Well, you can, but he probably won’t play your game anymore (i wouldn’t).

And there comes the reward. If we are talking about multi-player, it would be nice for one player to get what other player lost, right? You could say that, but even that has its limits. Sometimes, the pleasure of teasing your friend over and over for that fourth beating in a row is a pretty good reward, and being teased for the rest of the week is a pretty tough punishment by itself. When that is not enough, statistics and rankings can prove who is better and be a challenge to achieve on its own right.

I have a pretty straightforward thinking about reward and punishment in multi-player games. Here are some situations of rewards used in conflicts between two players. These can be interpreted to fit in single-player games too.

  • Both players win: This one would be perfect if it could be used more often. If the winning player wins something as a reward and the losing player gets something to encourage him to keep trying harder, that’s great. An example of this would be the negative feedback loop that is used in some racing games, the player that is behind is boosted so he can keep up with those in front of him.

Pro: Both players are kept interested in the conflict, one is rewarded for the achievement and the other is stimulated to keep trying.

Con: This approach could make up for unfair situations.

  • One player wins, the other does not: This one is the perfect fit for most multi-player games, in my opinion. One player is rewarded for his skills and efforts, and the other is not. Most common in multi-player shooters, when the winning team (or player) is rewarded with points or money when his team wins.

Pro: Reward the winning party for overcoming a challenge. The fact that the other party did not win anything, increases the prize value.

Con: Players who lose too many times are not encouraged to keep trying if they see they are not much of a match.

  • One player wins, the other loses: Should be used with caution. The fact that the player lost the conflict, is a morale punishment by itself. And more, if the winner gets what was his, and that was not suppose to be at stake (“I would not fight if i knew i could lose that”) the player can feel like he was robbed.

Pro: Winning feels more satisfying if you win something that was useful to someone else, and not just some random prize.

Con: Players who lose feel robbed, and can generate positive feedback loop, players who lose will be weaker for other conflicts and will be less likely to win.

  • No one wins anything: Hold on, why would you bother to design a conflict like that? Why would players engage in the conflict in the first place?
  • One player loses, the other gains nothing: If a player loses something and the other player does not gain anything, it’s pure punishment just for the sake of it. And the winning side is not rewarded for his efforts. Bad, bad design! No donut for you!

Pro: In some games, specially MMOs, this can be used (wisely) to take money from players and avoid economy inflation. Over-design here can ruin the game experience and frustrate players, be advised.

Con: The player will feel cheated if he lost something to the game and was not beaten by the game itself. The winning player will not be rewarded for his efforts, and will probably seek reward by the pleasure of beating weaker players (since he will not be rewarded even if he beats experienced ones).

  • Both players lose: See “No one wins anything”.

Conclusion

Well, that’s about it. I didn’t write half of what i was intending to and wrote twice as much as i have time to, but that’s life. My personal opinion is that players should NEVER be punished by the game. Designers should be wise enough to challenge players without punishing them to be able to do so.
I hope this can be useful for anyone interested in games, challenges, and NOT punishment!

See you next time!

Now and often we hear people talking about immersion in games. Some say that one feature breaks immersion, others say that one game is very immersive while another is not. I´m not writing this to say which games are immersive and which are not, or how to make a game more immersive. I´m writing to expose what I think about the subject. Again, this is a post with VERY personal thoughts, so feel free to throw tomatoes and eggs or call me names if you don´t like it.

Let us start with the basics. We are talking about games, right? Why do we play games again? For fun, you say. Right, I say. Some games are meant to be immersive, some are not. In some games, fun is intimately related to the immersion the game can provide to the player. However, even the most immersive game ever made will not be so if the player does not want it to be. Even if the designers did set up a complex scenario, with complex lighting and shadows, a creepy music and some neat sound effects to scare the hell out of the player, he is still holding a mouse and pressing keys on a keyboard.

Ok, I broke all your fantasies as gamers; now, in every game you play, you will remember that you are holding a mouse or controller, and immersion will be broken, right? Wrong. You always knew that, but you abstracted those things and did let yourself into the game for the sake of your own fun.

Then you say “So, what you are saying is that the game will be as immersive as I want it to be?”.

Exactly.

“How can that be? Are you insane? If you were desiging for my company, I would have you fired right away!” – you say.

See, you could fire me, but that woud not change the fact that if you are not willing to accept what the game gives you, your experience will be seriously compromised. 

Playing as children

What games can do best to give the player a proper immersion is to keep mechanics from getting in the way. Let the content of the game do the work. Let the player use what is given to create his own experience. It´s not that games are not allowed to create their own mood or theme. They can, but no matter how perfectly it is done, one player will see it differently from another, and immersion will be achieved by each player through what he sees and hears, associating it with what he expects, fears, likes, etc…

I tend to play videogames as toys. The Sims is often considered a toy by most people, because you play with your Sim with no defined goal to achieve; instead, you just live his life, taking care of the dollhouse. Do you remember when we used to play with toys, cars or action figures, pretending we were them, doing stunts and stuff? Real fun, right? That is exactly why, in my opinion, Will Wright is a genius. And that is probably the reason behind the (insert superlative here) commercial success of the Sims franchise. It´s something like that. Let me explain.

With great content comes great immersion

A couple days ago I was playing Spider-Man 3 for the XBox 360 when, during a mission, I had to rescue two people inside a building on fire; after I rescued both, my mission was complete, but I, as Spider-Man (and not as a player with the controller in hand) had to double-check. So I went into de building one more time, jumping into the fire and explosions everywhere, just to be sure I was not leaving anyone behind. After that I went near the ambulance to check that the victims were ok before swinging away. And I did all this without realising that, obviously, there was nobody else inside the building after the mission was accomplished, and that I could not actually see if the victims inside the ambulance were safe.

You see? A mission that was about getting random people out of a random place, turned into a more complex, entertaining and ultimately immersive experience. And I did not even go through all the little details such as the Spidey-like jokes that I make to myself while I dodge debris with a civilian in my arms. Being your friendly neighborhood super-hero is not a job for the faint-hearted…

Most of the time, this kind of behavior is emergent; the designer did not even plan anything special about the scene but the player makes it up with his own imagination. There is always a smile in my face when I experience this kind of thing. This is accomplished by the game providing content so good and so polished that the player can use it to increase his emotional and empathic link with the game.

Conclusion

My point with all this is that we should not worry about how the gameplay provides us immersion; that is not what it is there for. Instead, we should worry about how WE, as players, can immerge ourselves with what is given. The whole purpose of playing games is to have fun. Gameplay should entertain us through mechanics that are sound and fun, and game content should entertain us through a game world that is deep and full of life. Immersion, my true believers, is consequence.