Wednesday, March 16, 2011

New Kill Screen Article: A Sackboy Says No Words

Awesome art thanks to Josh Holinaty
The second article I have written for Kill Screen Magazine's website is up now. It looks at LittleBigPlanet and how communication because an intrinsic activity between characters, as opposed to a solely extrinsic activity between players. Please check it out and let me know what you think!

Just like last time, many thanks to Ryan Kuo for the awesome editing job. Without his suggestions, I wouldn't be half as happy with this post as I am.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Inevitable Exploitation of Chain World

Today (or possibly yesterday; I am a bit behind on Internet News), Jason Rohrer's entry into this year's GDC's Game Design Contest, Chain World, went up on eBay.

Some quick background information: The theme for this year's contest was 'religion'. That is, the contestants were not to make a game about religion, but a game that could be a religion. Returning champion Jenova Chen created the most disappointing concept, essentially sticking TED talk videos on YouTube with a little bit of gameification. John Romero had an interesting idea for a live-action game that he was able to perform in the room. It was a very western-centric idea of religion, but it worked and was fairly interesting. If I ever get the chance to write up about the actual session, I would like to cover Romero's concept in more detail.

The winning concept, and my personal favourite, however, was Jason Rohrer's. Rohrer's concept was based on his personal feelings of what religion is. In an over-simplified nutshell: religion is the myths we tell ourselves about those that came before us. He used examples such as things his family always say his grandfather used to say (though none of them are actually sure) and the stories and beliefs we form around artifacts such as Stonehenge. Essentially, we craft narratives and reasons around the things we don't know the actual history for.

Rohrer conceptualised this with a modification of Minecraft. One player has one life, and when they die they pass the game on to someone else on a USB stick. Once you play the game, you may never play it again. It was an interesting and inspired concept, and the most grounded in an actual interesting idea of religion. At the talk, Rohrer passed the USB stick onto the second player (himself being the first), and from there the game would continue as player passed it on to player.

Except now, player number two is exploiting it. He is selling the USB on eBay to the highest bidder. I could write a huge rant about how pathetic and despicable I think this is, but as my opinions seem to mirror Darius Kazemi's, I'll just link to his brief thoughts on it. You should read it before carrying on with this piece, just so you know where I stand on the matter.

So yes, the fact that this is happening made me angry. However, unlike several people I have been debating with on Twitter, I don't believe this necessarily implies the game was poorly designed to begin with. On the contrary, I think this exploitation crowns the game an absolute success. Chain World didn't fail. It is we, humans, that failed.

The reasons why others seem to think this exploitation of Chain World implies poor design (and I am not naming these 'others' on the high possibility that I am misquoting them and deforming their arguments, as Twitter is prone to do) can be boiled down to two things: firstly, the game fundamentally relied on players passing the game on, which was a tenuous hope at best; secondly, Rohrer never anticipated the game to be played this way and thus the game fails at achieving the thematic goals intended by its creator.

I agree with both of these statements completely, and I absolutely hate what the current player is doing with the game, yet I still do not believe Chain World failed. Why? Because Chain World is currently being used in the same way religion is used: exploited by the few to obtain money and fame from the many.

No religion starts as an institution. Religion start as faith and belief. It is only when they gather enough popularity that those in charge start exploiting and cashing in on the faith of the many. This isn't a particularly shocking thing to say. You only have to look at the wealth piled up in the Vatican while the preachers of Christianity insist we should give everything to the poor to see it is true. Does this mean religion is essentially 'bad'? No, of course not. Everyone is free to believe in whatever they desire, and nearly all religions are founded on noble, commendable goals. It's the institutionalisation of this faith and the exploitation of the faith of the many by a few that is bad--but also, I would argue, inevitable.

Those who founded Christianity did not do so to gather a huge pile of gold and tell others what to do. They founded it because they thought it was a pretty decent way to live your life and they thought everyone else would gain something from it, too. And then comes the inevitable stage where those in charge find themselves in a position of power over the faith of the many. Sure, it's greedy, but it's human. And I don't mean to pick on Christianity; the same happens in all the world's major religions at some point in history or another.

Now back to Chain World. It started with a belief of Rohrer of what religion 'is' and how that should be conveyed as a game. This belief tapped into similar beliefs of many others, either because he gave a really good presentation (which he did); or because most of those people love Minecraft, or Rohrer's previous work, or both.

And now, those shared beliefs of the many are being exploited by a few. Just like the most popular religions, Chain World is being institutionalised. Chain World is being treated just like a religion.

So was Chain World poorly designed because a) it is no longer conveying the themes Rohrer intended (or arguably it never conveyed those themes as the very first player after Rohrer exploited it), and b) because there was no fail-safe in the game design to prevent this from happening? No. Chain World was exquisitely designed, perhaps even better than Rohrer intended, because it has been able to evolve in the same way major religions tend to evolve: from personal beliefs into the exploitation of many, far beyond the control of the religion's founder.

So while I think what the current player is doing is pathetic, I also think it was inevitable, and perhaps even necessary if Chain World was to succeed at the contests stated thematic goal: make a game that could be a religion. As the bids for Chain World on eBay approach $500, and as Rohrer futilely urges on Twitter that the believers reject this reappropriation and exploitation of his creation*, those currently in power are taking suggestions for a tenth commandment for the game (essentially, putting their own rules over Rohrer's) as they institutionalise Chain World into the religion it had no chance of not becoming.

Chain World succeeded. Humans, on the other hand, have not.

(* Interestingly, I could be reappropriating Rohrer's words in a similar way myself by saying this is what he meant in this tweet, which he quite possibly didn't!)

(** Also, for the sake of full disclosure, and if it wasn't clear from the post, I am an agnostic/athiest (it depends what day you ask me). I apologise if my cynical views on religion offend you and your faith as I mean no disrespect to anyone's personal beliefs.)

Monday, March 7, 2011

God-Damned Crazy: GDC Postmortem

After a ridiculous long long trip home (over 30 hours spent on planes, trains, and in airports), I am back in Brisbane after what was easily the most phenomenally insane and overwhelming and outright amazing week of my life attending the Game Developer's Conference in San Francisco. Lectures were attended, reports were written, hotel rooms were partied in, tacos were eaten. It was one hell of a week.

I won't go too far into my experience partly because I am so jetlagged and mostly because that is a piece I am meant to be writing for Pixel Hunt, so I will surely link that when it is done.

Speaking of links, I was planning on linking to all the reports I wrote for Industry Gamers throughout the week, but they are currently migrating to a new server so I can't get to my articles, I am afraid. Instead, here are my favourite three things to come out of last week:
  • The Many Faces of Tim Schafer, Paste Magazine. Double Fine's Tim Schafer hosted this year's Game Developer Choice Awards and did a stellar job. He was entertaining, funny, and even managed to slam Penny Arcade over the whole Dickwolf thing. It was incredible. Unrelated to all of this, Brian Taylor took a lot of photos of Schafer's head during the ceremony and they turned out awesome.
  • Kill Screen & Copenhagen Gaming Collective Party. The social highlight of the week for me was partying with the amazing writers from Kill Screen Magazine (and a whole bunch of other people!) Games were played, dances were danced, and a certain Sydney-based blogger got a bit drunk and hugged a lot of people. Brian Taylor, once again, grabbed a whole stack of amazing photos worth checking out.
  • Holding the Bag: How I Gamed GDC's Top Social Game Developers. The Social Game Developer's Rant/Debate was a chaotic highlight of the conference. Strong opinions were thrown back and forward. An experiment/game was run where people had to collect coins to win. One man took things into his own hands and stole the entire bag. He has since written up his own account of the thievery and has drawn some interesting comparisons with social gaming and the gaming industry in general. It is well worth a read.
I am sure there is more incredbile stuff out there that I have not had time to read yet, so please link to whatever you wish in the comments.

I am utterly humbled to have met so many amazing developers and writers this past week and I can't wait to see you all again next year.