Hi there. I guess this blog stops… now. If you want to follow my game design thoughts and stuff, you can go to my new Tumblr, Game Design Porn. I hope to see you there.
So. It happened again. This time is Zynga, who have cloned Nimblebit’s Tiny Tower without giving any proper credit. They will earn money on the ideas and the creative work of other people. People who, being a small studio of three, cannot likely afford to sue the big ones.
Now, let’s talk copyright. Copyright was invented for a very simple reason: to encourage the production of creative operas by protecting them against theft and copy. Unfortunately it seems to work only for the wealthy and powerful big companies, these days: they can lobby to promote draconian laws as SOPA and ACTA, they can afford lawyers and so on. They are forbidding something was once natural: the creation of derivative operas (like Joyce’s Ulysses, to give a quite famous example). But while crying for the damages caused by piracy they seem to have absolutely no problem in stealing other people’s work. Especially if these people are too weak to take a stance against them. And we are seeing this more and more and more.
Just to be clear
I know very well that nothing is really created, that everything you come into contact with influences you in one way or another. I also know that copyrighting game mechanics and ideas is simply not possible (and stupid), because it would mean to stop having game genres (and to stop exploring certain ways of intend games). I’m even tolerant with piracy, which I think is inevitable and in some ways even positive. For sure I don’t like DRM or walled gardens, even if I can live with them if the added value they give me is enough. I think that the consumer should be treated with more respect, not like she’s a thief. Given all that, I also think a line needs to be drawn. And we have to find a good way to encourage creativity without this becoming a weapon in the hands of who’s rich and powerful. We need to protect in a clever and fair way all the intellectual properties, being the owner Zynga, Nimblebit, Vlambeer or Electronic Arts. We need to allow derivative operas but to stop who clones the work of other people.
Clones can’t be a weapon
And there’s one last problem, which is related exactly to what Zynga did with Nimblebit. A few months ago, Zynga tried to acquire the small team. They refused. Then, the cloning happened. This sound damn bad. It’s like they retaliate against not having obtained what they wanted. It is a nasty and vicious behavior, sadly famous in my country. We call it “mafia”, here. You think it’s a bit too much? Well, other people think the same. Nicholas Lovell, for example:
For me, that puts the cloning in a different light. It’s not just shameless copying of creativity by a heartless corporation: it’s a punishment and a threat. I can now imagine the approach from Zynga’s mergers and acquisition team to a small indie with an interesting game.
I’m a big fan of this Jarmusch quote:
Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery – celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: “It’s not where you take things from – it’s where you take them to.”
But heck, let’s try to take our things somewhere, not just carbon-copy them.
Me and my granny
When I was a little kid I was attracted by coin-op machines. Big cases with monitors spitting the luminous trails of asteroids and spaceships, little worlds telling little stories with glowing pixels, the mechanic sound of joystick and buttons and so on. So it seemed pretty logical to me to try to play with these machines as much as I could. It was something like having a glimpse of the future, it was (and somewhat still is) entering in a magical realm of dreams and losing myself for a while. So I kept asking my parents and relatives some coins to get those six-or-so minutes of pure enjoyment.
My grandma was a sweet old woman who raised three kids during the war. She came from another time, almost from another century. She was connected to the physical world. The concept of paying to have fun, for her, meant to get something physical, like a toy. She was an observant christian and obviously she was pretty much into the old system of rewards and punishment that western religions apply all the time. So, when I asked for coins to play video games she asked me the most logical question for her: “Are you going to win something? What do you get in return?”. My answer, as a kid, was just “nothing”, with a bit of shame. Fun wasn’t considered an acceptable good to be bought. Fun was free, for everyone. You could pay for a toy, not for playing.
And yet, today we know that it isn’t so. We often pay for fun, in one way or another. But what if we are paid for having fun?
From virtual to real
These days the web is all about gamification. Which is, and now it’s sadly clear, not game design applied to non-gaming activities, but just a glorified form of fidelity programs. Stuff we’ve seen over and over and that now is applied to the web. Simple like that. A user does something in a web platform, and she gets a reward. A virtual one, a small little digital trophy shining into her user profile. Jolly good. I’ve already shared my point of view on the matter and I won’t come back to it now. If you want my quick opinion, there: gamification as it’s intended right now is not taking what makes games engaging and fun, but it’s just treating people like small lab rats getting an insignificant reward for their not always significant actions. Nothing interesting. And yet everyone is trying it.
And there is a point when someone thinks “what if those virtual awards could be converted in something real?”. It is what Foursquare is doing, but it can be extended. What if, for example, we gamify the very act of playing games? And maybe we give real rewards to the best players? Wouldn’t it be great? Well, that’s what my grandma was thinking, back in the eighties. Turns out my nana was some kind of web genius. about 30 years ahead. Great news. So, if we admit that a lot of apps are used just for fun, and we start giving real rewards just for using them and for playing games, here’s exactly what we get: you got paid to have fun. That should be the gamification holy grail, isn’t it?
The problem with rewards
Except it isn’t. First of all, turns out rewards don’t work as we can expect. I already linked this RSA video, and it’s once again useful to explain myself. If you reward strong, creative and complex tasks with real world incentives, the motivation decreases. It may seem counterintuitive, but that’s the way it is. So, paying people for playing games could not be so great an idea: after all games are complex tasks. Then, I still think that choosing to play a game should be a free act (that dates back to Huizinga’s Homo Ludens). But if I play to get physical rewards, then this act will necessarily be less free. And playing suddenly can become more like working. Will I enjoy exploring a game world or just try to exploit the rules to get physical rewards? Will games become just glorified slot machines for people hoping to get some goods for free?
This is not the scenario I’d like for a game-based world.
So, we’re there. 2011 is over and 2012 has just started.
Last year was somewhat a transition, and it seems this new one will be full of surprises and things to do and challenges. I will hold two game design classes and i’m excited and scared about that. I’m willing to do the best I can.
Last year I started a small project. I described it here. It was a small book I used to write down a game idea each day. I came up with 350 ideas, which is definitely not bad. But something didn’t work as I expected at first. Day after day I felt more and more like a prisoner of this commitment, and creativity and enthusiasm gave place to frustration and anxiety. Sometime the ideas I wrote were pure crap, but that was taken into account. i guess this year I will let run my creativity more freely. Forcing myself to an idea a day just seems not to work for me. Not as well as I expected, though.
What else? Well, I would like to keep learning, and I would like to find some time to work on a small book on game design. This is something I tried again and again, but never had the time and the commitment to actually make. Maybe this is the right time, maybe not. It is worth a try, though.
Probably the best wishes for the new year came from Neil Gaiman. It seems so right for me, in this very moment of my life, that I cannot keep to steal what he wrote and copy it here.
I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes. Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You’re doing things you’ve never done before, and more importantly, you’re Doing Something. So that’s my wish for you, and all of us, and my wish for myself. Make New Mistakes. Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody’s ever made before. Don’t freeze, don’t stop, don’t worry that it isn’t good enough, or it isn’t perfect, whatever it is: art, or love, or work or family or life. Whatever it is you’re scared of doing, Do it. Make your mistakes, next year and forever.
This is it. So, happy new year. And game on!
With the always increasing diffusion of GPS-enabled smartphones, there are a lot of games trying to connect the real world with a gaming world. The basic idea is to put a layer on the real world depicting an alternate reality, or something like that. I’m starting to think all these products are maybe missing the point, and they are ignoring the only added value of a locative based game: a better connection with the space you live in.
The Risk approach
This is the most obvious. You have a real space, so what’s best for a game than territory control and conquest? A lot of locative games, like GoWar are applying concepts coming from Risk and other strategy games to the real world. The idea is simple: you can claim the places you visit and reinforce them with military units. The more territory you control, the more game money you earn, the more units you can keep up.
All this games are not really working, because they aren’t taking in account a fundamental issue: scalability. Take Risk, for example. The ratio between the number of players, the average number of units you can have in-game and the number of territories you can conquer is carefully balanced to always grant an exciting game (and yet, the game is quite flawed by a rich gets richer problem). There are games that have tried to break this balance to give the players a different kind of experience: this is the case of Smallworld, which deliberately narrows the space to force the players to change strategy (and even kind of units throughout the game). Now, Smallworld is interesting, because, unlike Risk, it offers a different map depending on the number of players in-game. This demonstrates that the players/space ratio is really important to grant fun in a territory control game.
Now, the Risk approach in massive locative games like GoWar is not the best one, just because you haven’t got a real way to control this ratio. Some areas could have too many players to be funny, some others will be too deserted to be of any interest. Only a few places could have the sweet ratio spot that makes the game fun. And even there the risk of having one player ruining the game to all its neighbors just because he has much more resources than the others is really high.
The Alternate Reality approach
The alternate reality approach is not alternative to the Risk approach and it has to do more with theme than with game mechanics. A pretty good example of this is Shadow Cities, a game in which players take the roles of mages fighting to control real territories. Wizards can teleport in different locations (as long as a friendly portal is opened) and take part in multiplayer battles to conquer the various areas. Everything in this game is heavily themed. The idea is to create an alternate world built directly on the real one; some sort of layer with its rules and its history. In Shadow Cities this concept is so extreme that you don’t really know where you are in the world when you pass through a portal. Sure, you can tell looking at the name of the streets, but in general the sense of the real place is completely erased by the alternate reality layer.
Now, the problem with this kind of approach is that you somewhat lose the sense of the place you are playing in. If the layer destroys the history, the features and the meaning of the environment, what is the point of having a locative game in first place? You could have the same experience with a fantasy map.
Global vs. Local
When dealing with locative games, maybe is worth to ask ourselves some questions about scale. Do global scale really matter? I think that, while the massive multiplayer idea is alway seducing, maybe looking at a world scale locative game is not the most efficient way to go.
The real added value of locative games stands in the local area the player is roaming, in the features and the history of a particular area. So, why not focusing in enable the player to live the city in a different way? Thinking this way we need to take a look and learn from urban games. Six interesting examples of games dealing with urban spaces are in this post by Kars Alfrink, and I may add Tiny Games by Hide & Seek, a series of mini game stickers the guys have placed in Southbank London. Each sticker proposes a game which could only be played in that specific place, due to its inherent characteristics.
By playing in a local scale you can even leverage the power of groups of people playing together and use real-world interaction between players.
Even if I always look with curiosity the work people is doing with massive locative games, I guess we are just at the start of an idea that could grow a lot. The current approaches are only scratching the surface of the possibilities GPS enabled-devices are giving us.
I think we must move past the Risk-like games and start asking ourselves how we can improve or change the way people are living their social spaces.
And maybe there could even be the space for changing the use of some locations and the meaning of others.