Internet – The Social Metaweb

I sometimes get the feeling that the Internet is starting to become just a network of social networks. Sure, I know there’s so much more, but they all feed into a social network sooner or later. Myself, I already use a number of these networks and services, that all link to each other. Initially just to clear my mind, I assembled this map basically only showing how I’ve connected all these social networks into… a network. In other words, my social metanetwork.

Social Media Forwarding Map

Of course, this is a rough prototype – for any formal use, I would give it more thought (and make it pretty), but it drives the point home. By writing this post, I’ll show it on no less than three networks by only forwarding stuff back and forth. The same goes with any activity on Foursquare or Youtube.

It’s not that I don’t like it – it’s a great way to stay active on the web, reach more people and save time doing it. I’m just baffled I need to create a map to know where all my posts will be shown to avoid multi-forwards and circle-forwarding as it grows more complex. I’ll be adding services, and I want to forward content on them, so more complex it will get.

Update 1/7-12: I got some interesting discussion on facebook about this, basically boiling down to “Facebook and Twitter are two diffrent media, so don’t force link them”. To explain it, let’s compare with film. Facebook is your 1,5 hour movie, while Twitter is your 10 minute short film, or sketch. A short film or sketch could deliver a point quickly, or be a good laugh. However, as we’ve too often seen, the same story, character or scenario doesn’t always hold for a full-length movie. The other way, a full-length movie loses a lot of it’s nuance and investment in character when you reduce it to 10 minutes (“Titanic in 5 seconds“, parody as it may be, makes the point).

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Thoughts on Heavy Rain

I’ll just write down off the top of my mind a “review”-like thing for Heavy Rain. I happened to play it all – in one play-though – with a friend last evening, and really feel I should write it down while memory’s still fresh and not yet affected from “better” thinkers then me.

I’d love to start off with the story, but I’ll save that to last. It’s a very, very, story-focused game, and I’ll prefer to use plenty of spoilers (of what happened to me and my friend, at least). So I’ll start off with my thoughts on the controls of the game. You see, Heavy Rain has been accused both before and after to be “a series of Quick Time Events” (QTE). That’s only half true, and the true half is gravely misleading. Let’s just give a quick description of what I consider a “Quick Time Event”, just to remove any confusion. A Quick Time Event is a series of prompts asking you to press, hold or smash a specific button within a short lapse of time that does something a regular move would not. Atop of that, it usually have grave consequences if you fail and doesn’t have much with regular game play to do. With that said, the accusation of Rain only being QTE:s falls completely. Rain uses prompts with button commands such as press, hold, smash or steer a stick or the controller in a certain direction or move, but it does so consequently and in a logical manner. Want to turn on the ignition of a car? Sure, just make a turning move on the stick. Have to throw something? “Throw” the controller (just don’t actually throw it, or you’re in trouble). And this will be the move every time you want to do this action. In other words, it works wonderfully! The system allows the game to do so many things regular game’s cannot. I’ve never played, or seen, a game where you change a baby’s diaper, put on make-up in a club’s toilet, cooked dinner or started a car before – and that’s just the tip of the iceberg of what this game does.

These prompts are displayed with white squares with stylized icons on them, which usually follows the object in the game world its associated with. This means the icons are always visible, most often clearly say what their action does (although we had a few tragic miss-clicks). Sadly, the design of the commands they want you leaves room for interpretation sometimes. The “mash this button”-prompt looks obvious in theory (it’s a button that pulses inwards), but sadly can be confused by the “hold”-prompt (a white arrow-head on the top quarter of the square) in the heat of action, something that caused us to fail one of the game’s tasks. The icons of the face-buttons (X, Square, Triangle, O) were a bit difficult to read, which usually caused half a second of lag in my mind just figuring out the right button. They could be slightly colour-coded to increase visibility. At least you’d had two things (colour and shape) to go on. The shoulder-buttons (L1, L2, R1, R2) could also be a bit more visible by displaying the label more to it’s corresponding side (so [L1] and[R1] would be [L1  ] and [  R1]) and having a slightly different shape for the 1-buttons and 2-buttons. That’s another thing that caused some response lag in my brain and could easily be fixed. The brain is fast at reading semantic relationships and shapes, but not that fast at reading. A natural mapping makes it quicker.

And quickness is highly valuable. Although the game always gives you time to press every prompt (about a second, I think), the game in its more hectic moments can stir up a lot of panic and similar. You’ve ever been to an exiting movie where your stomach is practically twisting itself in anxiety or something? This game is like that, times ten, every ten minutes. Or that’s what it feels like. The knowledge that the outcome is based on your performance, and that you can fail, is the tip of the scales here. In films, you usually know the outcome before the exiting part even begins. Here, you can’t know until the next chapter begins.

One more thing about the interaction that I don’t want to forget. Movement. Movement in this game is really unconventional, and takes awhile to get used to, but it’s really smart. To move, you hold R2. The left stick only adjusts the direction. Which means walking a long time isn’t that annoying (and you will walk a lot, because you don’t half-run like all the FPS:es out there). It also means you can keep going the same way if the camera angle should switch, which happens from time to time. The game controls the camera, and although it most often only follows you around, it often jump to more dramatic places, as well. This blurs the edges between different game play modes and cut-scenes, and it often feels like one single entity.

Oh, yeah, and there’s dialogue options, which fits right into the current character’s situation and, in a Mass Effect-fashion, gives a key word for what they then say. If you don’t select any within a specific time, they start to fade out and select one for you. This makes them options, but doesn’t halt the flow of the game. Besides, they’re done in a really smart aesthetic manner, circling around your head as thoughts do (you can “hear” what your character think from time to time).

So, the story. Spoilers from here now on (and now I’m filing anything slightly revealing or supposed-revealing in the “spoilers”-folder), so don’t read on unless you’ve played it or never intend to. I’m not a buyers-guide, nor do I intend to, but a quick analysis, so I can do this. So, the game starts off with Ethan Mars sleeping on his bed, with a nice view and a fantastic house. He walks around the upper floor, showers and gets dressed, and you start to really connect with him. I went off to his desk and got him working. Turns out he’s an architect. He probably drew this house! Then his wife and two kids shows up, and you sort of feel like I suppose parents feels, the “wow, how life turned out well! I’m so lucky!”-feeling. Which serves dual purposes of tutorial, planting the Mars families into the “regular” state, and soon makes the rest of the story so much stronger. Because, frankly, you care. A game-hour later, Ethan’s life is but a shadow of what it once was. Where his home was clean, modern and beautiful before, it’s now a worn-down place from mid-20th century. Instead of two happy sons, he’s got one depressed one. Instead of a lovely wife, he’s got an ex-wife who blames him for the son who’s no longer with them. And so does he. And it’s such a tragic mess. And then the story kicks off, and it’s just worse.

Along the course of the story, you switch between four characters who’s stories intersect with one another from time to time. This is both a good and a bad move. The good move is that you get plenty of perspectives on the drama, and the moments the characters meets and interact become so much stronger. The bad part is that you somewhere along the way lose that connection to Ethan. He becomes just a character, although one you hope for will succeed, instead of that tight feeling with being someone who could be you. But, really, the gain is so much bigger than the loss that it doesn’t really do anything.

The plot gives the impression of being semi-linear. That is, it’s not like a completely linear and pre-defined story, but it won’t branch into very different endings, either. Now, I’ve just played it once, so maybe I’m wrong, but the story felt like it was going from A to B, and the circumstances of the main plot would depend on my choices. I dunno, maybe that’s praise I first didn’t intend it would be. Perhaps the story can go wherever it want, but it so well put together that I don’t notice it. If that’s the case, then the game is truly amazing.

End of Spoilers. Anyway, it’s a great game, and I hope other developers takes inspiration from it. Now I’m off to see what the “better thinkers” have thought on the matter.

Let those movies go!

For a very long time, game developers (and in particular, I guess, game designers and game writers) have worked to get games as close to movies as it’s possible. And, although I understand as well as support the idea behind a cinematic presentation of story elements, the comparison in my opinion breaks completely when you use it on interest curves. Some have used television series as an example, and although this works fairly well, it’s still a bit flawed. The comparison that should be made is to a medium so taken for granted we barely think about them: Books. And, more specific, novels.

“What?” you may ask. “But books are only a mass of text. Interactive fiction might fit, but not audiovisual games”. And this is the same logical trap that makes the comparison to movies appear over and over again. Because, as audiovisual as games are, they tend to be 10 to 40 hours long. A movie is for most considered too long for most if it reaches four, a length considered short for a game. This length demands of a movie to quickly get to the intrigue and get on with the story to reach the end quickly and then be over with. A TV-series demands on their cliff-hangers and plot-twists to make their viewers return after the advertisement break or next episode, and such as a peak every 15 minutes or so. And although the full length of such a series can reach 20 hours, about the length of a game, those 15-minutes frequence of peaks would make the interesting curve terrible for a game (just imagine you ran into a pack of monsters every fifteen minutes just to get a black screen a few minutes before the fight began).

Because of this need to get on with it, movies (and, although not to the fully degree, TV-series) can only scratch the surface of the world they portray, one reason to why they so often takes place in present-day reality (and, well, it’s cheaper, easier to find actors, more relevant to the general reader and a bunch of other reasons). A game, and a book, can go deeper, behind the surface, and make the world so much more believable (compare the Lord of the Rings-films with the books, or the Star Wars trilogy to Knights of the Old Republic).

So, what about books makes them so good? No, it’s not about that it’s only text. Look at how they’re structured instead. They’re divided into chapters, often ending in small hooks of curiosity (or cliff-hangers, of course) to keep your interest to the next chapter. More importantly, they’ve got the same kind of interactivity as a game in that you can quit anytime you want, insert a bookmark (“save”) and come back to the same place you were anytime you want (“load”) and keep on. And where you can return a bit in the book to regain the context, you can often check quest logs or mission objectives to remember where you are. And, perhaps most important of all: When you leave a book or a game in the middle of a storyline, don’t you often imagine ways you would want the plot to develop? I sure do, and I hope I’m not alone. This never, ever, happens in movies (or, it has, but that’s been while it was still running), because it never takes any breaks. Although that goes with TV-series, as well, you don’t get to find out until the series next episode goes, instead of whenever you want with a book or game.

Of course, with episodic games and the like, such games comes closer to TV-series, but for now the “buy and play”-model is still widely used. However if that remains for long, with digital distribution and piracy on the rise, is up for speculation. Something history have taught us all is that things can change more suddenly then anyone can guess until its happened.

Link Tips #3

I see I haven’t made any real updates this week. Which is strange, because I’ve been reading and playing more stuff then usual. I guess I should start making myself some opinions and get writing! Anyway, I made sure to make the Link Tips-posts less a sad thing then they’ve been before, and took a new strategy to build them (that is, throwing all links in and edit a draft during the week). And, lo and behold, it seems to have worked!

As always, Rock Paper Shotgun’s Sunday Papers and Gamesindustry.biz’s article Depth Changes – and a Eurogamer-blog article about Gaikai turned up while I was searching.

On Gamasutra, an opinion called Can Games Become “Virtual Murders”?. I’ve always had a worrying feeling about the “shoot people in the face”-focuc of gaming (as some earlier posts goes through), so this is really refreshing to read – but it seems like the post gets the same sort of opposition I tend to get while speaking about it aloud. I hope it’s the first step in realizing things, denial, but it could just as well be a defense of the established, home-blindness or plain “I want my guns!”. Anyway, great article.

Eurogamer has an interview with Rob Pardo, talking a lot about Blizzard’s design philosophy. There’s a quite a bit of good stuff to remember in there.

A gamasutra compilation of Expert Blogs posts, including weapon balance, questioning if frustration is all bad, what makes a good game story and more. These Link-tips are starting to become a compilation-compilation!

From Edge-online, an article series about making “Non Fun”-games. Here’s the last of four linked, the earlier three is up to you.

From MMORPG.com, a column about accessibility. Not much that should be new to anybody, but still worth reminding yourself of once in awhile.

Link Tips #2

Yes, I know I didn’t post any last week. But here’s one!

First off, the returning Sunday Papers and Gamesindustry.biz article.

Also, a gamasutra feature about Dramatic Play. And another gamasutra article on Infamous’ pacing.

Some marketing-posts: First off Dev.Mag’s Zero budget indie marketing guide, which links to Kieron Gillen’s How to Use and Abuse the Gaming Press and How the Gaming Press Wants to Use and Abuse You (and, yes, I do think I found that thanks to RPS). Finally a edge-online post by Introversion’s Thomas Arundel called Selling to Customers.

I think that’s enough for this time. Embedded links makes these posts seem shorter then they are, or if it’s “not longer then they are”…

Travelling in MMOs

The 1st of Mars last year, I wrote a post about MMOs and time-waste, where I – among other points – wrote: “For instance, you get a quest to kill some bears right outside town. Now, this town is on the top of a mountain, and the bears are down in the alley[sic], so you’ve got to get down that mountain to kill bears and then back up. Sure, this sounds like a small thing, and it is. It is when traveling includes flying all over the world back and forth taking several minutes for nothing that it, in my opinion, gets bigger. Or when I have to run down that same mountain the tenth time. Why can’t I just teleport around, moving to the target instantly? It’s not like I won’t have to know where I’m heading to make a precise estimation of where I’m about to teleport.”

Sometimes, the world behaves in mysterious ways. Yesterday, Rock Paper Shotgun (RPS) posted an article asking why you can’t teleport in MMOs. Knowing I’ve asked the same, and during this year of education might have found a few answers, I feel I could make a post going a bit further into the subject. Some of the link’s comments made a lot of sense, as well, so I might bring a few quotes from there.

The perception of speed

The first reason springing to my mind is how the perception of speed is relative to itself. For a real-life example: Imagine a distance you bike or take the car in very often. You start to get a sense of how long this distance is. Imagine this vehicle would break down, and you’d have to walk. This would feel like taking incredibly much time. Now imagine you’d use to walk said distance, and instead one day take the car. The distance would be over in no time at all!

Now, of course, this is not only the perception of speed, but the speed itself. But when you’re used to a certain speed, be it the car, the bike or the walk, it becomes the norm, and you compare the new speed with the one you’re used to. Being able to teleport in a game, any game, would quickly make teleporting the norm to which any non-teleport transportation would feel like a snail slowly crawling forward. In short, being able to travel instantly would be more frustrating then travling slow to start with.

The tension

Anyone who has been ambushed or “ganked” in an MMO knows what I’m talking about already, but let’s explain it and elaborate why this is a good thing.

MMOs with a free PvP element usually attract people who take every chance they get to kill other players, the easier prey the better. The prey is usually “ganked” after this has happened, if tends to be a bit frustrated as they hadn’t counted on being ambushed. After awhile, this creates a tension for said player, close to paranoia. You are always prepared to be ambushed, never let your guard down and never let a potential enemy get a good opportunity to kill you. This is a part of the social aspect of the game, and although it frustrates some, it’s an important part of the game.

The best defence against being ambushed like this tends to be to either move a lot faster then the ambusher, or be out of range so they can’t hit you. WoW’s flying mounts did this, and consequentially killed the tension while you were on your mount (there’s no such thing as a Anti-Air turret in WoW), although it just increased it to a level of powerlessness while you hadn’t. As you may already have guessed, being able to travel instantly would multiply this indefinitely. No tension for the teleporter, a feeling of powerlessness for the other.

Meet new people

The upper side of the “social game”-coin is that you run into strange new people and might get new friends. This is partly up to the players themselves, but also to the game-mechanics. If everyone is too focused on reaching their goals, they won’t bother talking to others except if it furthers their goal, and then they’re business-partners rather then friends. Also, if they don’t have any reasons to meet, they won’t. This is one reason to why there’s things such as instances, group quests and public quests in these games, and it is one of the points I got criticised for in my post on “time-waste”.

Anyway, instant travel comes into the picture pretty easily. If  you have places to meet up, there’s also space between these, and sometimes people get a chance to run into each other during said travels. Making them instantaneous erases all such chances.

The Hardware

I’ll simply quote RPS-commentator Theoban on this: “If you walk around in an MMO, even run, even fly, the game data is loaded into your RAM and the area behind you is unloaded. This leads to MMOs being very RAM intensive, more than any other genre of game out there.

If you port however, it has to remove all that data and reload all the other data of the next region. It’s almost like logging out then logging back in again for the amount of information that has to pass not only from your RAM but through your network adapter.

I thnk the lack of porting in MMOs is frankly because the average user’s internet connection isn’t up to it yet, and neither is their RAM (meaning they’ll have to wait ages for the loading/unloading of data). Remember, we’re only just getting to the area where 2gb of RAM is considered normal.

Give it a few years and I can see this happening. Just not yet.”

Conclusion

There’s several reasons why instant travel, how tempting it may sound on paper, in practice wouldn’t be the best of features. On the contrary, making travel slow but interesting (I believe it’s the lack of interesting things that makes it boring, not the travel itself) is in the best interest of these games. But, if so, I would almost demand decent directions so I don’t run to the wrong place. That’s just… bad.

Happy Midsummer!

If I have any readers, I wish to wish them all a happy midsummer! This includes you who don’t consider yourselves readers but happens to be here anyway.

And, a few notes. Having started to play KotOR 2 again (a new “review” might be needed soon), I thought about buying Mass Effect, so I went to steam. There it costed 45€, or about 500 SEK. So I checked Webhallen.com and found it for 180 SEK including transportation. I just have to wonder how the reasoning behind keeping the price up is – surely a game retailer, digital or no, must realize they’re not alone in the market and customers find options if it sounds too expensive? They all sell the same product, after all!

The Designer’s Journey: Chapter One

There seems to be plenty of common themes between the story structure of The Hero’s Journey and the path to reach the dream job.  I’m not sure if it accounts to everyone in every field, but my story to reach a Game Design position feels a lot like a Hero’s Journey-tale. Thus, The Designer’s Journey is born. It will be a storyfied tale about how I got interested in becoming a game designer and what I’m doing to get there.

July 1994. As with every occation when I would get gifts, the excitement had sky-rocketed through the roof several days ago. I would turn 5 years old this day, and in one of the wraped boxes a wierdly shaped black box was drawn, called a “Sega Mega Drive”. Not knowing a single word of english, it quickly became the nicely rhymed “Sega Mega”. Bewilderingly opening the box, I was told something along the lines of “you can change what happens on the screen”. Imagining gingerbread men dancing at command or something equally silly, I was a bit disappointed only being able to steer some blue blurb through some green hills only to get beaten up by a car with a drill up front. Once the solution was found, however, it was great fun. As I played, I got more and more curious as to how these things on the screen were made, and wanting to get some influence and knowledge how to create those. Only being equiped with pen and paper, the journey began.

Character-creation as first choice

Someone who will watch this several years from now is likely to say “Hey, he’s barely active at all!”. Well, ideas comes in waves. I could have done five posts or something in the first week, but forget to post anything in two months after that. Then I prefer to do about one post a week. Besides, it gives me time to think what I really want to write about, what’s important enough for me to take the time to write on this blog which only use are years away. Thankfully, that time gave me this coming topic.

Let’s put up this, probably very common, situation. You’ve bought, or gotten, a game that you’ve been looking forward to for a long time but haven’t done any detailed research on. Up and down in anticipation, you install the game and run. First thing you get is an intro increasing your urge to play, like. You go into “new game” hoping to start right away and get into a menu where you’re supposed to make your character. A bit of a setback. Now, what’s more likely of these two: You put in the effort to make a really cool character you can identify yourself with or you rush something up that you’ll be ashamed of for the rest of the game? Doesn’t sound like a problem? That’s because this is the cosmetic side of the coin.
The other thing you’re supposed to do is choosing your class and traits. Or, if we put it another way, in a developer-perspective: The player is making a choice that will affect the way s/he’ll play and enjoy the game you’ve build for years based on nothing but what sounds cool in a few lines of description with the risk of not enjoying it and having to start over to change to what might feel like a better option or abandoning your game altogether. Sound like a problem now? It should.

The only two reasons I think this exists is that one, not enough players have thought about it that way and two, the initial designers didn’t think about it or didn’t bothered to change it. So, let me give my thought on it.

To start with, don’t show the character in the introduction – e.g by using first person or having it dressed in a robe or a space-suit or something – and keep the game classless in the beginning to let the player learn the fundamentals. Then let the player try out each class’ core game play before s/he makes a decision. When the game play doesn’t feel that new and unfamiliar to the player any more, it’s time to let the player set face, body-attributes, gender etcetera. Not while s/he’s still in the “I’m finally playing” -phase. And, in case s/he can change the character’s clothing, don’t make him/her set an initial clothing that will be replaced soon, anyway. Obviously, the character-bit isn’t needed if there’s a fixed protagonist.
If you’ve got a lot of classes that reminds of each other, like several different tanks, damage-dealers and healers, make them first choose the archetype by trying them out until they decide, and when that feels familiar let them choose the class within that archetype.

And, if it’s an on-line game, making the “tutorial” single-player would allow the player to take his time and make mistakes without feeling like a rookie or being shouted names at by more experienced players (there can even be dungeons and groups in that tutorial-area, where the other players are NPCs filling the completing roles and gives the player advice on how to play it’s role in a group).

You might by now ask who the heck I think I am to give these suggestions, and I have to base this on? I’m basing it on my own frustration when picking a class I don’t know if I’ll enjoy and the enjoyment I don’t know I’ve not gotten by not bothering to start over with what could’ve been the class for me. I’m basing it on the confusion on playing a rock-paper-scissor when you chose scissor years ago and get beaten up by rock today. I’m basing it on all the time lost reloading after death when you don’t know something basic about your class or the game. Short put, I’ve based in on experience as a gamer, and not as any kind of developer.