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).

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?

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.

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.

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.

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.

On Diamond, Pearl, and the theoretical PokéMMO.

Pokémon Diamond and Pearl take everything I adored about the original Game Boy games… and keep it exactly the same. Same simple visual aesthetic; same synthesized battle cries; same basic battle system; same super-cute creatures and the motivation to “catch them all.”

Nothing’s changed in the latest franchise titles. Instead, more has been added on top of the already-perfect formula. Your pokemans can do more than just battle; they breed, dance, and compete in beauty competitions. The trading is made easier by local wireless connection, and the super-amazing Craigslist-esque Global Trading Station. You’re still out to catch all of them, but now there are more to catch. What’s most amazing, is that all these additions to the formula actually work. I love these games.

The logical next step for the series seems to be a massively multiplayer experience. A lot of people agree on this point. But how would a PokéMMO work? Here’s what I’m seeing:

  • The Lo-Fi MMO aesthetic. We don’t need high-poly-counts! Eschew complicated graphics for quick-loading, low-bandwidth, stylized simplicity, similar to the graphics already present in Pokémon games.
  • Turn-based battles. In an MMO? Well, yeah. Pokémon’s never been about who can click faster, so why change that now? We’ve limited ourselves to the standards set by WoW and those that preceded it for far too long. But how would turn-based battle work in a Massive game? Well, for starters…
  • Battles occur outside of normal game-space. Anytime a player enters a battle, that player is taken to a separate screen, outside of the overworld of the game. The player’s avatar remains in the game-space, but indicates that the player is in battle.
  • The first random-encounter MMO. Players walking in particular areas can randomly encounter wild Pokemon, and enter battles. Sensing a pattern here? A lot of these details keep PokéMMO in much the same realm as its single-player ancestors. If it isn’t broke, why fix it? And why go out of our way to make PokéMMO like every other Massive out there?
  • Entirely PVP. Every player in the PokéMMO world is a trainer. Players can talk to other trainers, and request battles in 1v1, or 2v2 flavor. Battles are necessary for leveling up pokemans, but players must all consent before fighting. Trainer battles, like all battles, occur outside of the game-space. The avatars of the trainers in battle indicate that those trainers are battling each other.
  • Players can watch other players battle. If two or more trainers are battling, other players can see their avatars in the overworld, and have the option to enter a spectator mode to watch the battle in progress. Spectating players can cheer for particular trainers in battles, and this encouragement can have an effect on the match.

Like the Pokémon games, the PokéMMO should practice a clear-cut delineation between the simple world of the characters, and the fantastic battles of the Pokémon. This has always been a conscious separation in the design of the Pokémon games. The simple, squat sprites give way to more stylized representations of both pocket monsters and trainers when a battle commences. This same division should be practiced in the MMO. It encourages players to use their imaginations, and Pokémon has always been about imagination.

The final element of a successful PokéMMO should be an open-endedness in the world and narrative design. “Make your own Pokémon adventure!” the box would say. Allow players to tell their own stories, develop their own teams of devoted Pokémon, and take on the world at their own pace.

Well, it’s a start, anyway. Any other ideas? Am I wrong about this being the first turn-based MMO? The first with random encounters? Am I wrong about everything?