Why I don’t want rockstars, ninjas, or wizards

I don’t want a rockstar. Rockstars are arrogant messes who steal the spotlight, trash hotel rooms, and leave the rest of the band to apologize and clean up.

I don’t want a ninja. Ninjas are dishonorable and would sooner stab their enemies in the back than face them in battle.

I don’t want a wizard. Wizards are fictional; they’re an impossible promise.

I want a game designer.

Game designers know when to talk and when to act. Game designers look at difficult situations and smile. Game designers thrive within constraints, and love making things. And game designers recognize they can’t do everything themselves.

Which is why I’m trying to hire a game designer: not a wizard; not a ninja; not a rockstar; a game designer — and preferably, one who’s better than me.

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Social Games in the IGF

Anyone who knows me knows I’ve been loudly encouraging independent game developers to begin playing with Facebook and social games. Out of 568 entries for the 2012 Independent Games Festival, a handful are playable on or with Facebook. And while this might seem paltry, I think it’s an important first step, and I’d like to bring attention to these few games.

(If I’m missing any, please let me know and I’ll amend the list).

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Who Color is for.

This is the image that appears when you use Color, illustrating what I can only assume is the ideal user behavior from the perspective of the developers. It’s captioned “Take photos together.”

But this isn’t an illustration of people taking photos together. It’s an illustration of a bunch of snobbish white people more preoccupied with taking photos and posting them to “elastic social networks” than actually being “together” — than being present in the moment and enjoying the company of those around them.

They all look like assholes to me. Is that who this app’s for?

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What cards do.

One of my goals for 2011 is to make significant progress towards publishing my first non-digital game. So as this year moves forward, I’ll be putting more and more thought into designing Billy Pilgrim, my tentatively-titled card game about love and unintentional time travel.

What feels like a hundred years ago, I talked about playing cards — ubiquitous decks of 52 which comprise the toolset of countless games. I’ve known from the beginning that Billy Pilgrim was meant to be a card game. As vehicles of widespread gameplay, cards are undeniably important. But I think it’s easy for us, as players and creators, to forget what cards do.

Cards and dice are both vehicles of randomness. But with dice, there’s no shift in probability as the game draws on. Dice represent a stasis in the degree of randomness in the world. And when we play with dice, we don’t seek to derive order from the chaos. We simply seek a means to represent unknowable factors.

Cards, on the other hand, are agents of turmoil. The odds change with every play, every turn. And most card games — at least those built upon a standard playing card deck — are all about creating organization from a disorganized pile.

So for making a game about a non-chronological character, there’s no better tool than cards. The question remains, however, as to whether or not as a player we seek to help Billy find order in his world, or whether we are merely observers of a scattered story, trying to find order for ourselves.

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What I believe.

2010 turned out to be a difficult year for me. Over a period of 14 months, I had a lot of what I believed thrown into question — about privacy, about my career, about my passion for games. I spent countless mornings wondering what I should’ve done differently. It’s over now, but for a long time I couldn’t see what that end was going to be, or when it was going to happen.

It became very important for me to solidify my understanding of what I was trying to do in the game industry. I needed a reason to stick by the choices I made, and the risks that I took: moving out to San Francisco with no job prospects lined up; leaving a lucrative position at a rising company when I’d felt they stopped hearing what I had to say; joining one of the underdogs with the conviction that I was going to help create the next generation of great social games.

And despite the setbacks — despite the erosion of privacy, the emotional and professional strain, and the (temporary) loss of some very good friends — I’ve ultimately come to the conclusion that I have no regrets. Everything I’ve done over the last 3 years, I’ve done because of what I believe.

I believe in a free and open industry. I believe in friendly competition. I believe that the more we can all talk to each other, the stronger we can all become.

I believe that iteration and innovation are not mutually exclusive. I believe that we have to learn from both our mistakes and successes, but that we can’t repeat the same success patterns over and over and expect them to keep working. I believe in the need to take calculated risks, but risks nonetheless.

I believe that a company is only as good as its employees. And I believe that when a company treats an employee more like an obstacle than an asset, it’s within that employee’s rights to seek out a better situation — more stability, more respect.

I believe that with over 250 million active users on Facebook every day, and with more than half of all Facebook users playing social games daily, there’s more than enough room here for all of us. There’s no need to shake fists at each other all the time.

And I don’t believe that there can only be one winner. I believe that success can be defined in a multitude of ways, and that we haven’t even seen half of how social games can be “successful.” I believe that this industry is still inching closer to that rebirth I’ve been hoping for, and I believe that I made the right decision in staying in the space. To help it get to that point, and to be here when it happens.

I believe that 2011 is going to be a better year.

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A simple request.

Dear Apple:

kthxbai.

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I shipped a game. I’m off to Burning Man

Been quite busy these last few months, but the fruit of my (and a whole lot of other people’s) labor has finally been revealed. I am quite proud to be Design Lead on City of Wonder, Playdom’s latest social game, which has been receiving quite humbling reviews.

Today I’m leaving for a very different kind of city of wonder to attend Burning Man 2010. I’ll be delightfully Away From Keyboard from 8/29 through 9/6. If you find yourself on the Playa, come visit me at 6:30 & Baghdad. I’ve designed two games in keeping with this year’s theme — they’re called MetaTropolis and City of the Phrase, and I’ve love to teach them to you.

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How to fix Cow Clicker

Ian Bogost created Cow Clicker, according to this tweet, as “a Facebook game about Facebook games.” And I do get it. It’s funny. Ha ha. Okay now but seriously, it could be better.

Ian, if you’re paying attention, here’s how to improve your Facebook game about Facebook games.

1) Reduce the Click Window: Currently I can only click my cow once every six hours. MouseHunt lets me sound the hunter’s horn every 15 MINUTES. And I can cook cheeseburgers in Café World in only five. Procrastination and distraction operate on fairly tight cycles. How often do we refresh our RSS Readers? Our Twitter pages? Facebook? Try a 15 minute window. Let me click my cow every 15 minutes.

2) Make the Stream Stories Actually DO Something: You’re spoofing the infamous “Lost Cow” viral, but you’ve missed why it started a trend. People aren’t clicking cows for their health. They’re clicking them because they get something for it (namely, a cow). If a newsfeed is not incentivized, it’s only valuable as advertising to new players, and a reminder to those who haven’t played recently. When incentivized, every player has a reason to click it. Click click click.

Try awarding one Click to each player who clicks a Cow Clicker Stream Story. And while you’re at it, award one Click back to the poster for each player who clicked. All your newsfeeds do right now is breach the platform policy (VI.A.1, if you’re curious).

3) Prime the Mooney Pump: Paying players are a little like vampires. Once they’ve tasted blood, it’s hard to stop. Wet their fangs with 15 Mooney — enough for one low-level cow, and enough left over to make them want to reach for cooler cows.

You can then keep priming the pump with small amounts of Mooney awarded to players. Create a low instance in which upon clicking, a cow in your pasture will, ahem, “drop” some Mooney. More cows in your pasture means higher chance of Mooney droppings, means more of a reason to invite friends.

4) Send me a Highland Coo: I guess this won’t actually help you in any way, but they just look so fuzzy.

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Sight Unseen

In a recent video, Zero Punctuation’s Yahtzee Croshaw described Nintendo’s 3DS — first introduced at E3 — as “a concept that is literally impossible to demonstrate in picture or in video, which rather shoots the advertising potential in the foot.”

A snicker-worthy comment, but one that touches upon an interesting problem that’s been increasing in relevancy over the last decade.

The earliest I remember it was on some of my favorite VHS tapes: ads “showing” the impressive sights and sounds available on those fancy new DVD things.

More recently it’s television commercials “showing” us the superior color and clarity of High Definition Television — as viewed on our inferior standard definition TV’s.

And now, it’s Nintendo trying to “show” us their new 3D technology, and Apple trying to “show” us their impressive new Retina Display. But how do you advertise a feature that’s beyond the spectrum of what your advertising medium can do?

The Nintendo 3DS is reportedly quite a thing to behold, but unless you’re actually beholding it in person, you have no way of witnessing the portable’s magical no-glasses 3D effect. Nintendo’s solution? Hundreds of women with 3DS’s tethered to their persons, to give the audience at their E3 keynote an opportunity to see the devices up close.

Likewise, Steve Jobs remarked during Apple’s unveiling of the iPhone 4 that they had to install a special digital projector just to give the WWDC keynote audience a better idea of the clarity and depth of the phone’s “Retina Display” resolution.

It’ll be interesting to see how Nintendo chooses to approach marketing the 3DS when it’s closer to launch, and I’m very curious to see if Apple ever plans on making a bigger deal of the Retina Display in their ads (thus far, only one iPhone 4 ad has aired, focused entirely on their FaceTime video calling feature).

In the meantime, enjoy the short spec ad I threw together for the iPhone, in a posthumous collaboration with John Hughes.

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Foursquare: games, services, and game-like services

Or: How I learned to stop worrying and love the link-bait.

I worked alongside Dennis Crowley at area/code over the summer of 2007, so it’s been fun for me to watch the meteoric rise of Foursquare. From its debut at SXSW in early 2009, to its $20 million Series B round announced just last week, I’m incredibly happy for Dens and his growing Foursquare family.

(I also feel slightly vindicated for all those times my friends poked fun at me for “checking in” wherever we went last year. So there’s that.)

Foursquare is an incredibly fun service, improving dramatically over the experience offered by Dodgeball — Dennis’s former startup. But it’s also a service somewhat at odds with itself.

At its core, Foursquare is both a competitive location-based game, and a collaborative location-based communication service. That’s a little wordy, but here’s how it plays out in user stories:

Foursquare the Game:
As a player, I want to check in, and become the Mayor of, as many places as possible.

Foursquare the Service:
As a user, I want to let my friends know where I am, and find out where my friends are.

There’s obviously a great deal more to the service (the incredibly helpful Tips and To-Do’s, and the increasingly promising promotional deals and venue specials), but in both instances Foursquare is fundamentally about the relationship between the user, her social network, and the venues.

So here’s the rub: As a game, Foursquare is easily exploitable. Users can create venues (like their own apartments), check in to locations without even walking in the door, and capitalize on Mayorships in places in which they might have an unfair advantage (like a place of employment).

Foursquare could crack down more heavily on these “game exploits”, but those restrictions would work against the service.

At the end of the day, this makes Foursquare less a game, and more a game-like service. It’s an interesting and quickly-growing category, and Foursquare’s proudly paving the way for a more playful and game-like approach to social media. I just can’t wait to see what’s next.

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