Bob does it again…
If you are not familiar with the Bechdel Test, it is a simple test to apply to films; (i) there must be at least two women in it, (ii) who talk to each other, (iii) about something besides a man.
Many films still fail this test, though it was made popular back in 1985. The test only goes as far to look at the visibility of women in film, and to examine that they are defined by more than their relationship to a man. It doesn’t examine how the women are portrayed and a film that passes the test may in no way be a feminist film. It’s simplicity is both it’s strength and it’s weakness.
I’m interested in how this could be applied to the context of video games. But in order for it to work I think there needs to be some changes. So here is my version:
(i)There must be a female character with whom you can interact, (ii) who doesn’t need rescuing, (iii) and isn’t a prostitute.
Such a test comes with the assumption that there are gendered characters within the game. Some games, such as Flow or Space Invaders, do not have any characters of gender.
Samus Aran from Metroid by Ivan Flores
Conversation vs. Interaction
In film, the story is conveyed to a passive audience primarily through the dialogue of the cast. But in gaming, the game is defined by interactions that the player controls. Whether it is shooting, fighting, flying, walking or talking, different games draw on different actions, but it is the the player that performs these actions.
So in creating a test suitable for video games, I am less concerned about women talking to each other, but rather the actions performed to, with or by them. As it’s through these actions that we experience the game.
In relation to a man
Bechdel also looks at women defined only by their relationship to a man, but this is harder to determine in a game. Games are a series of interactions, a collection of small one to one relationships with the player; X jumps over a log, X shoots Y, X lifts a box, X is killed by a ghost.
As a result if the player’s avatar is male then it is possible that most of the game is defined by its relationship to a single man.
So perhaps an even simpler test would be I can choose to play as a woman. But this is too simple and doesn’t reflect a strength of the Bechdel Test where it is actually surprising to realise what fails the test, thus encouraging you to examine more films you know.
With games we make the player an actor, literally, and it becomes about the actions as well as dialogue that define characters and gender. To examine if women are defined by their relationship to men we must look at how a male character and female characters interact and the actions associated with the gender as defined by game designers.
Helpless or horny
So when thinking about actions that define women in terms of men there are two that I see constantly in games. Firstly the helpless princesses who need rescuing, I’m looking at you Nintendo. Women who do little more than to offer the gamer the next quest, because they can’t do something and they need you. “Can you please find my lost chickens?” while I stand here looking worried. Her role is to give you an objective and in turn make you the hero.
The second is as an object of desire, which can fit with Bechdel’s idea of women being defined only by their relationship to a man. When sex is a commodity, a job, and a means by which we identify characters, it is a way to examine this. This test criteria isn’t without flaws, but it is surprising how many games have prostitute or stripper NPCs.
What doesn’t it test.
Its important to understand the limitations of a simple test.
It does not test the player. Some games don’t have characters of gender, and any gender these games are given are defined by social expectations of the player, not the game designer.
It doesn’t address games such as the Imagine series, where there is vast gender stereotyping going on. But having not played them it might be possible that the gender of the player while assumed is not defined and so a boy playing the game would turn such stereotypes on it’s head. It then comes back to the social expectations of the player, not the game.
I’m deliberately not examining what the women are wearing, it’s not about the clothes. You can write whole essays on this alone, but lets just say I don’t care what people are or are not wearing and at worst it’s a symptom. The male gaze is an issue in games as with other media, but this test it too simple to explore this concept in any depth, so certain volleyball games may still pass.
I’m not testing for misogyny. I haven’t created a test that would fail if the only women in the game were psychopathic killers. In order to keep it simple I decided that at least if you are fighting evil women they have some power, which you are trying to overcome. If this is the only depiction of women it definitely smacks of misogyny, but this wasn’t covered in the Bechdel test either. It also forgoes violence against women.
Tip of the iceberg
Women are not the only group poorly represented within games. Homosexuality, religion and race are all very poorly represented, and this is clearly due to a lack of diversity in the people making games. This test does nothing to address this other than look to raise awareness, it’s up to us to make games that change this.
Another amazing GameCity, we are in year six now and I’ve attended every year in some form or other. Each year the festival grows and develops in new and interesting ways and this year was no exception. There is no other event like this one, it offers a unique experience to explore and celebrate games, playing, art and their cultural significance. As such it draws a diverse audience from all over and it is these amazing people that really make GameCity the highlight of my year.
So here are some of my highlights and feelings about this year:
Journey and Robin Hunicke
One of the most profound moments in GameCity history was when Robin played Flower in the arcade behind the Council House, then her talk on creative minds in the same year inspired this blog post. So I was elated to hear she was joining us again this year to play Journey, the latest game from That Game Company.
This year we had beanbags in preparation, with the addition of consoles set up around the tent to play along. Given the collaborative nature of Journey this seemed a great idea and was a natural progression from observer to participant.
Beforehand Robin spoke of the process of creating a game that allowed and encouraged co-operative play, and how to encourage the desired behaviour, instead of griefing and competitive play, so often found online. I always enjoy this insight into the design of the user experience in games.
A special thanks to Robin for finding the time to talk to us afterwards and I hope GameCity will bring us all together again soon.
Uncharted Series, Richard Lemarchand and BAFTA
Over the course of GameCity Richard gave several talks on the Uncharted series, but the one that will stick with me the most was the BAFTA talk he gave, entitled Beauty and Risk which looked at emotions in gaming and how indie games had affected Uncharted.
Any (games) talk that references Donald Norman’s ‘Design of Everyday Things’ get a huge thumbs up from me.
Richard is a huge supporter of the indie game scene and both Robin and Richard are involved in Indiecade, which has I hope will return to GameCity. So as part of his talk he spoke about how the game The Graveyard had influenced the peaceful village in Uncharted 2, allowing the gamer to explore alternative contextual interactions.
The presentation was packed with information, including influences such as William Morris, best working practices and how systems in games are evolving, that are still rattling around in my brain.
Keef and The Guardian Breakfasts
These panel events are a great start to the day, set in the lovely independent Broadway Cinema with full English breakfast and a debate to kick your brain into action. I was really delighted to hear Keith Stuart would be joining us again this year, his sessions are great balance between insightful panel comments and audience participation. I hope they become a staple part of the festival.
Generously set 30 minutes later this year, an event where people who are more awake than me in the morning have an interesting debate about what we think the past, current and future of video games means. I was pleased to hear my views about Kinect being validated by industry leaders; here we have a whole new and exciting way of interacting that offers so much more possibility than the restrictive buttons on a joypad, however we still don’t know how to build games for it.
No one noted though how we really need additional means of feedback, the haptic feedback from a rumble pad can be subtle but vital in connecting you to a game. I need a Kinect alternative that is more imaginative than wearing a vest to feel bullet hits.
My favourite comment came from Mitu, who spoke briefly on creating games for women or minorities, not by trying to targets games at these audiences, but rather just by not actively offending them. “Don’t be a dick!” If you attended the September GameCity Nights then there’s a lesson in there for Hog Rocket.
This is was a new twist on the long standing lunch time events. Two hours set aside at Antenna for food, while watching a game designer play through and discuss their game. It was brilliant. Antenna offered a very limited menu, but that meant food was fast, tasty and not too expensive. While Eric Chahi showed us From Dust and Another World and Richard Lemarchand offered some insights into the Uncharted series. From Dust and the Uncharted series are both games I’ve really loved playing so it was fantastic to understand their motivations and challenges in creating these games.
With Uncharted in particular Richard talked about how the game starts and how the player is given the understanding needed to learn the controls and see what the next steps are in the game. It is this affordance that fascinates me as a user experience designer, how we give triggers and build understanding.
Turning a hand to game deisgn
This year I had my first real go at designing a game as part of a research project into privacy. This offered a unique opportunity to work with some friends to look at creating a game to help inform people about online privacy. It was an interesting challenge and I thought the results that came out of it were really good – I wanted to play them all. I hope we get to develop some of them further and play test them. It was great to actually create something and to be given permission to try something new, with feedback from industry professionals.
Kooky and Samarost 3
As part of the festival we saw the UK premiere of Kooky, since the game designer Jakub Dvorsk
Games UI Series
For some time I have written about both my professional and social interests on this blog; covering user experience and gaming, but I want to combine them and look at user interface design in games. I think this is an oft-neglected part of games, especially with the usual budget and time constraints, however as with any software design the usability of the user interface can have a profound effect on the user’s experience.
An advanced user experience on World of Warcraft
Usability in games is not restricted to on screen interactions, there is a such diversity of ways to interact with your gaming platform of choice; be it joypad, keyboard, touch screen, or no controller at all. This makes the platform and method of interaction a key part of the user experience in games, as such I will explore the strengths and weaknesses of these human-computer interfaces.
Some games designers and developers think that creating games is completely different to creating other software, because they are creating entertainment rather than tools. However recently as we have seen an increasing overlap between games and applications e.g. Epic Win we can see that these lines are far more blurred than previously considered. Software development has only recently realised the commercial value of user experience, but games developers often consider themselves the audience as well as the creators, failing to realise that their familiarity with their game hampers their ability to see their product impartially; perhaps more frustrated by the focus groups that require them to “dumb down” games than they are in the issues that may cause that confusion in the first place. While games do need to offer challenges in order to evoke a sense of achievement, these challenges should be designed and deliberate and not a hurdle of a poorly designed interface.
I was delighted to see that Edge has added to its staff Graham McAllister; the CEO of Vertical Slice, the UK’s first usability testing company to focus solely on games. This recognition of the need for usability in an industry leading publication can only help raise the profile of the value of understanding your users.
I’m hoping to write a series of game reviews, which look specifically at the UI and give a heuristic review on their strengths and weaknesses as well as offering possible alternative solutions where appropriate.
RockStar’s Red Dead Redemption and LA Noire
I wanted to look at how RockStar have evolved their user interface from Read Dead Redemption to their latest game, LA Noire. Their games all have consistent game mechanisms, so it is possible to chart the evolution of their interfaces, even from GTA to their latest offering.
I should state that I played Red Dead Redemption on the XBox 360 and LA Noire on the PS3, however the hardware has minimal impact in this review.
The repetition of game mechanics means there is a lot that is familiar to anyone with experience of RockStar’s earlier games. This is great for usability as you can transfer learning from one game to the next.
Radar in Red Dead Redemption
In both RDR and LA Noire we have the familiar radar interface with indicators as to where the next story activity is. Which makes it clear how to progress through the game, something that is essential when you are playing a relatively linear game in an open world environment.
Although LA Noire makes a concerted effort to offer a more film like experience and supports this by removing the HUD whenever possible, preferring instead to offer feedback within the game.
Radar in LA Noire
The weapons system is also simplified in LA Noire, you just have a default weapon, you can pick up more powerful weapons that enemies drop in combat, but these are not retained. Thereby removing the need for an inventory and simplifying the menu system considerably. With no inventory the game now offers quick access to the map.
In RDR the map is put at the top of a rather long menu as the default choice, but in both cases viewing the map offers limited information, it gives you some context of your location in the world, but many places on the map aren’t marked until you discover them. This is a game mechanic, not a usability issue, used to encourage the player to explore the land, there is no critical gameplay missed if you don’t discover all of the map, but doing so offers rewards. A similar mechanic is employed in LA Noire, but less successfully, perhaps the very linear nature of the game removes the desire to explore in the same way or the reward offers less incentive.
In Red Dead Redemption there is a lot going on and as a result the menu system is complicated and not always clear. Your inventory is on the back button, with several different pages to tab through, while the start button brings up a hefty menu that includes both game options and game play aspects. This part of the game I find unintuitive, often accessing the wrong menu accidentally. There is a great deal of information in the menus as well, with everything except ‘Map’ having a second tier of menus, and I hope you have HD or you’ll struggle to read a lot of the text based information.
In contrast I love the very stylized main menu for LA Noire, it really sets the tone for game, but is kept simple and clear.
A menu screen in Red Dead Redemption
In LA Noire you can dig into the game stats in the same way as earlier RockStar offerings, which is a good offering for a specific type of gamer. They are not core to the game play, but you can go see how much more of the game there is to get involved with as well as examining your own playing style. It doesn’t do much for me, but I can see that a cricket fan might well enjoy it.
LA Noire lacks multiplayer and has a significant shift in game play driven by the use of new technology to capture facial expressions, this does create new opportunities for usability and game play interaction. The core mechanic in LA Noire, when not pointlessly driving around between crime scenes is the “Lie, Doubt, Truth” mechanic which asks the player to make a judgement call based on evidence collected and more significantly by reading the facial expressions of the actors involved. The limited options to handle a complex task are key in being able to drive the story and gameplay forward. Keeping the options simple allows you to concentrate on the complexity of juggling evidence and lines of questioning along with reading facial expressions and while I like the simplicity of the solution I found that the results were sometimes mixed.
Also there were significant issues with introducing the gameplay as important information explaining this new method of gameplay would appear during the interview, at the time when the player’s cognitive load is focused on the interviewee. It was such a distraction I had to play the first level through again and after discussing this with friends I found I wasn’t alone. This set a really bad precedent because it immediately knocks the player out of the linear timeline and you loose a direct sense of connection with the lead character in LA Noire. Not to mention I played the whole game without realising that if you accused someone of lying and then decided you didn’t have any evidence to support it, you could back out of the decision, presumably I missed that instruction.
The whole game is geared towards progressing regardless of if you get the ‘right’ answers, but this dynamic is broken at the first hurdle by the distracting instructions and the deliberate decision to not pause the gameplay to deliver them, so as to stay in the story. It would however have been better to offer the instructions before the interview, during the free roaming, where there are no time constraints, a possible suggestion is in the form of obvious ‘clues’ which the player can choose to engage with to get more information.
One thing both games do very well is the use of audio clues. LA Noire has audio triggers for clues and successful or unsuccessful questioning. They are significant to the gameplay, but also go a long way to creating the atmosphere of the game. In RDR there are audio cues to let you know what wild animals are about, you will almost certainly hear a mountain lion, before you see it and doing so could save you from a grizzly mauling.
Both games are different, so this exercise isn’t to say which one is better that the other, but to look at how Rock Star are evolving the game interface and where there is room for improvement. The menu system in RDR is greatly improved for LA Noire, so hopefully they will keep improving and simplifying it for any new games they develop. There has been some coverage about the conditions in which LA Noire was developed and RockStar’s relationship with Team Bondi, so I hope they don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.
I hope they reconsider how they deliver game instructions too, although gamers will now have a better understanding of how to approach this kind of game going forward and new precedent for in game interviews based on facial expression rather than dialog options has been set.
For the last two weeks, my HTC Desire has been off for repair, and Nokia very kindly sent me an N8 to try for two weeks, so I wasn’t stuck with the terrible handset T-Mobile gave me. The only condition…. this review.
So here it is the highs and lows of my first Nokia handset, from a user experience designer’s perspective.
I was impressed at first, the N8 offers some haptic feedback, which I think is very valuable when dealing with touchscreen interfaces, but in my opinion it’s too indiscriminate, as you get feedback for any action you perform, including scrolling. However the button feedback is very subtle and effective, with a down and up feedback, much better than other touch screen devices I’ve used.
The handset itself ok, about the same size and weight as my HTC Desire, complete with audio jack, USB, camera and MicroSD expansion in a sealed unit like an iPhone. In addition it has a HDMI output, which makes more sense when you look at the camera on this handset.
The camera is pretty outstanding, it’s 12 megapixels and has a Carl Zeiss lense and includes a flash. The handset has a dedicated photo button, making it very easy to switch into camera mode. Although the case doesn’t offer a way to protect the lense cover, which is a shame, but would add bulk. The camera is so good that if that features heavily into your phone choice you should definitely consider this handset.
The problem for me came with the operating system, it does do a bunch of cool stuff, but Symbian is still feature rich at the cost of usability. Holding down call, allows you to open apps by voice, but you have to know what to call it, e.g. Internet got me nowhere, while it recognised Contacts and Calendar.
The biggest failing for me was the difficulty with which to get to applications. The desktop space, has multiple screens and is easy to customise, but you can only add widgets, not shortcuts to applications; an option called “shortcuts” just offering four pre-populated shortcuts and if these could be customised I couldn’t work out how. Instead accessing the apps requires I press the home button and navigate through a screen that looks like a slightly improved version of the old ‘mystery meat’ Symbian menu, to an application menu, where all the good stuff sits. It’s only saving grace is that it highlights which applications are open with a little green ‘o’ next to the icon in this menu, and that it is easier to close applications than in either IOS or Android.
It seems fair at this point to talk about the application ecosystem, Nokia has its own ecosystem called Ovi, in the same way Android has Google and the iPhone has iTunes and Mobile Me. You can buy apps and backup your contacts in the same way you can on any smartphone . The problem here is that with any smartphone the apps have a really important part to play. The usual suspects do make an appearance, so you can still play Angry Birds on your N8, but there will be less applications available for general consumption. The Ovi store works smoothly and is not unlike using Android’s marketplace, so it works well, but doesn’t offer anything new. A shame as I think the app stores are the areas that now really need reconsidering in terms of usability.
I did get frustrated when I couldn’t find the handset MAC address, so was unable to add it to my wireless network. Information like this can be well hidden, but it should be available somewhere, after a google I found out you need to put a code into the call screen, which for me is beyond obtuse.
The compact charger is a delight, much lighter and smaller than most, although why it isn’t a USB charger I don’t know.
Overall I did struggle with this handset a bit, but this may be largely because I’m already heavily invested into the Google ecosystem, so once I sync my phone with my Google account everything else comes to life. But I have no investment in Ovi and despite creating an account for this review, it’s unlikely I would ever use it in the same way – seamlessly across multiple platforms. I think that the hardware is pretty good, the camera especially is outstanding, but it needs an operating system that has been built from the ground up as a smartphone OS and Symbian still fails on that front.
Thanks to the great guys at WOMWorld Nokia for the loan of the phone, and credit should be given to Nokia for supporting a venture that engages with social media in a smart way. I expect this will be the first and last review I ever get to do thanks to Twitter, but it has been a great experience.
I have just about recovered from the annual whirlwind event that is GameCity. I’d like to cover the highlights of this year’s games culture festival.
Keith Stuart from the Guardian kicked off each morning with a discussion around video games, looking at the new technology, the most important games so far, emotional impact of games and the possible future of gaming. Despite my sleep deprived state these were so good that I still managed to get into Nottingham city centre bright and early and a big thanks to Broadway cinema for putting on a slap up breakfast to help me get started for the day ahead. Unlike me Keith however was lucid and spoke intelligently about each subject, and had a changing panel of guests from speakers at the festival to give their two pence worth.
Often in games that move me the audio will affect me, even if I’m often unaware of the impact that it is having as it adds to the game without distracting from the game-play. Limbo is just such a game, and Martin Stig Anderson did an amazing job of the audio for the game. His discussion and demonstration of the audio work for Limbo was really enlightening. He detailed how he had created the sounds, rerecording them through wire in order to distort them until the source was no longer decipherable. As Anderson spoke about how the transitions were handled in the platform game, in order to give areas of the game an identity and atmosphere, it really opened my mind to the complex possibilities of audio in games as the usually linear nature of music is turned on it’s head if placed in the context of a nonlinear game where the user controls the journey both in time and space. In Limbo Anderson used the environment of the game to create the soundtrack, rather than overlaying the game with a piece of music.
He also spoke about how audio offers us the most “temporal nuances” compared to our other senses, which tied Jonathan Blow’s earlier talk in the day about Braid and learning the rhythm of platform games, such as Super Meat Boy in order to be able to play them. We can learn to play some games by ear.
Photo of the James Hannigan event at GameCity kindly permitted by zo-ii
This event was astounding and a fine example of what GameCity do amazingly well and you experience no where else; the convergence of cultures in a way that is both theatrical and emotive. Last year we saw Robin Hunicke perform Flower in a shopping centre complete with falling petals. This year we had Pinewood Choir in St Mary’s, the oldest church in Nottingham, performing soundtracks from games such as and Command and Conquer: Red Alert 3, Warhammer and Harry Potter the Deathly Hallows, complete with live owls. There is something profound about hearing an talented choir perform in the reverberating acoustics of an old gothic church, but when the music they are singing takes to back to a moment in a game they combine in a way that gives a sense of grandeur to an often underrated part of the gaming experience.
Chris Hecker played his new game Spy Party against a large crowd and beat us all, but it doesn’t end there, I managed to get a hands on with the game later in the GameCity lounge and it was really great fun to play. Spy Party is a bit like a reversed Turing machine, it’s 1vs1 and you have to try and perform several spy acts before time runs out and without the other player spotting you in crowded room full of AI. In order to succeed you have to play like the other AI characters, any uncharacteristic behaviour and your opponent can snipe the suspected spy and end the game.
Hecker talked about asymmetrical game-play, such as Left for Dead, where you have to learn how to play the game, as different tactics are required depending which side you are on. He spoke about games of perception, deception and performance and that often you were required to these things synchronously, but by allowing a player to concentrate on either deception or perception enabled him to make the game more difficult, completely focusing on player skill, i.e. you have to get better at playing the game rather than upgrading an avatar. A big challenge to playing this game is finding people at the same level to play against, since even playing a few times gives you an distinct advantage, but it was great fun to play and I’m looking forward to playing it again.
Jonathan Blow gave two talks, one about his successful indie game Braid and a second one about his upcoming game Witness.
Blow showed us early prototypes for Braid and discussed some key dynamics for designing a platform game, such as having a rectangular game character, like Mario or Super Meat Boy, as a necessity to make it easier to judge your centre. It was interesting to explore using the time game dynamic within the confines of a platform game, one of the oldest and most familiar types of game. It is this familiarity with how we expect the game to work, that allows Blow to make challenging time based puzzles that require us to learn a new way of playing. But because they are difficult he spoke about trying to remove distractions, such as sticking with the familiar setting of blue sky and green grass. Subtly giving us information on interactivity, by set pieces having more detail if the are interactive, or less if the are background set.
The art work for Braid is very beautiful and he pointed out that there were individual icons for all the beasts on the level as they died, rather than the same sprite used repeatedly. He also demonstrated that when time slowed down you could see the beasts get upset when they were killed, so it felt like he was trying to create a degree of empathy for the player and he wanted you to question your wanton killing of these beasts, whilst also making it necessary to kill some in order to progress through the game, again subverting the familiar platform game.
View through the window early on in Witness
Later in the week Blow talked about his new game, but less about what he was creating and more about how the game introduces itself to the player. This was fascinating to me on a personal level as I’m really interested in usability and how we learn to understand software.
Blow talked about how often games put vast amounts of resources into creating really rich environments, such as Assassins Creed 2 and Fable 2, but how they never fulfill their potential as rather than enabling the player to observe and learn from their environment they are instead forced into more linear game play, by either a radar of tasks or a golden path to follow. We never need learn to observe the dog in Fable 2 when he finds treasure as an icon helpfully pops up over it’s head telling you to dig.
Blows demonstration clear showed a build up of information, starting with the very minimum, just arrow controls to move you forward to a door. The door had a very simple action to perform to open it and already we have learnt how to move about and how to interact with the puzzles in the game. It was the very clever way he built upon existing knowledge, not assuming a level of understanding, but offering small challenges built upon previous experience that enables the learner to understand and learn what they need to do next.
In addition to this it was very clear that despite being set in an open world he was very conscious of what you could see as certain points in the game, in order to give you a sense of direction and purpose. After passing through the first door, you can see a second door and through a window which offers a limited view of the future puzzles, so you get a sense of where you need to go. Also when in the open world he used the height of buildings and perspective in a way to help guide you over short term and longer term goals. Although it seemed like it was holding the players hand a lot at the beginning, by presenting very simple puzzles, building on this fundamental familiarity and understanding of the game enables Blow to make the puzzles much more complicated as the game develops, although we didn’t see enough to see how he will exploit this.
Nick Burton shows off Microsoft’s Kinect
Rare are working on Kinect Sports, a launch title for Microsoft’s Kinect, which Nick Buron demonstrated at GameCity. He showed off a bit of the under the hood, in terms of what Kinect can actually do and one thing that became clear was how Kinect demands a in depth understanding of biometrics, in order to really understand what movement a body is making. He also spoke about the challenges of working creating a Kinect game that was accessible both the casual gamer market and children as well as the hardcore gamer who wants more of a challenge. Its obvious they have learnt some lessons from both the great successes and the failures of the Wii.
As with the any new kind of interface both the developers and the audience need to learn to understand about how to interact. As with the Wii and Move before it, sports games offer easy access to these new types of motion based interface, because they offer already understood affordance both for the user and the developer. In my own mind the first generation of games don’t really offer us anything particularly new, but once we all get more familiar with the interface, Kinect seems capable of much more subtle input and hopefully we will find new kinds of games that explore that potential.
Saltsman and Mayes
Working on Ideasbucket
As part of the festival there was a project to create a game. Firstly ideas were submitted by the public, often involving bright crayons and gratuitous amounts glitter. Then Adam Saltsman, creator of Cananbalt and Rebecca Mayes, the singing reviewer of games, worked together to create a game in a single day. It was interesting to see how they worked together and you could see both the code creation and the the music develop as part of the organic process of creating a game. Find out more.
The streets of Nottingham became PacMan’s maze
Turned the streets of Nottingham into a PacMan maze, with the help of a handful of laptops and some mobile phones and ten willing volunteers. Half the players are the game characters out on the streets of Nottingham, the other half are located at the base with laptops, one laptop and partner per game character. The ghosts work as a team trying to find PacMan and catch him, with the players reporting any sightings to their partners via mobile phone, who in turn co-ordinate the ghost tactics and input ghost locations on the map. One pair work as PacMan, they can use power pills at the corners of the map to turn the tables or try and avoid ghosts, the person with the laptop updates PacMan on the location of the ghosts, which they can see on the laptop.
I managed to play three games, and I have to say that as much as running through the streets of Nottingham, midday on a Saturday at half-term, wearing a giant Blinky shirt sounds like a nightmare it was actually great fun. I even managed to catch PacMan! Check out were PacMan will be next on their website.
Ever wished you were in any of those cat burglar, heist or spy films with laser security? Nottinghack made it yours for the taking by put on a laser maze at Lee Rosy’s Tea Shop, where you got to act out your fantasies by navigating the maze and defusing the bomb. Were you Cathrine Zeta Jones or James Bond? Great fun.
I’d just like to finish off by thanking all the team that bring us GameCity, it is still massively overlooked as a festival and is unique in the way it brings together the industry and the customers and in the diversity of the events it runs, there really is something for everyone. If I were to make any criticism this year it would have been the lack of representation of women in the industry, but that is not unique to this event. The thing that really makes the festival for me is the people, I have consistently met interesting and friendly people over the five years the festival has been running. Thanks everyone, see you next year.
Yulia Brodskaya has rejuvinated the old craft of quilling and added her own style and flair. I’m not aware of anywhere to buy her work yet unless you are lucky enough to pick up one of the multiple publications who have commissioned her work.
The beauty of these images comes not only from the fantastic work she creates, but the very skilled way in which they are photographed with diffused light. I’d love to learn more about her creative process and the logistics of the creation and photography. There has been a real resurgence of papercraft graphic art recently including some amazing work from Su Blackwell.
I recently acquired a HTC Desire running Android 2.1 and it has significantly changed the way I use my mobile phone. The primary reason for this can easily be attributed to Android. I knew when selecting a new phone that the apps would make or break it.
So why not go with iPhone? Because HTC make the best hardware on the market.
Hardware vs Software
I have been a fan of HTC handsets for several years now, as they regularly push the hardware limits of mobile devices, squeezing in just that bit more functionality than their competitors; however more often than not the software was a letdown, not living up to the potential of the hardware, even in things as crucial using it as a phone.
Apple blew the market away; the hardware is not as groundbreaking, but it made sure that the OS fully supported the hardware functionality, concentrating on the usability of the product in a market that was saturated with terrible UI design.
A few months later Android launched.
The reason my mobile usage has changed is largely because of Marketplace. My old HTC Diamond, has amazing hardware, but runs Windows Mobile and the apps are sold in a more traditional software business model (as you might expect on a Microsoft platform) with a price tag to match. Apple created the AppStore, as a single point for all apps, accepting micropayments through iTunes.
Android has easy access via their Marketplace and also utilises a lot of the other successful Google applications like Gmail and Google Calendar, meaning for me it is taking the tools I’m already using and seamlessly putting them in my pocket. I could check my Gmail on my old Diamond, but it was pull not push and didn’t support HTML; now it is easier to use my phone than it is my PC.
Apps are purchased through Google Checkout with a 24 hour refund policy, so rather than enforcing heavy restrictions on the apps available as with iTunes, users can try and review apps without cost for 24 hours.
Android has a desktop like space which you can customise with widgets, which means you don’t need to launch applications to get to useful information, such as your appointments, photos or if your train is on time.
HTC and Android
HTC have a history of taking off the rough edges of the OS interface with HTC Sense. This made my old HTC Diamond very usable and it hid a myriad of Microsoft’s sins behind smooth animation and gradient interface menus. With Android this work isn’t needed, allowing them to concentrate of creating some great looking apps and widgets; that means your phone is ready to run straight from the box, no need to go hunting through the Marketplace for Facebook or Twitter apps, just sync and go.
Fragmentation has always made mobile development difficult and while neither platform is particularly easy to develop for, Apple have recently taken the step of excluding apps that have been compiled from Flash, which could reduce the number of developers with the necessary skills to create apps. Android is Open Source and Java based as opposed to Apple’s Objective C, and there is an increasing market of tools to help compile for your desired OS. Apple no longer has the largest market share, although the expected release in June of a new handset will most likely boost iPhone sales again.
The cost of submitting an app is considerably cheaper for Marketplace than it is any other platform, and the volume of apps is increasing as the Android adoption grows.
Handsets and Networks
Apple has at last allowed networks other than O2 sell the iPhone, but the hardware doesn’t change until Apple release new version. Android is available on many different handsets, so you can pick one that best suits your specific needs. HTC are constantly developing new handsets so you can always get the most cutting edge technology on the market.
Alice Taylor, Commissioning Editor for Channel 4 (and Wonderland blog) talked recently at Game Based Learning, looking at how gaming enables Channel 4 to engage with their target audience of 14 to 19 year old. But also looks at how gaming mechanisms can be used to engage large numbers with an educational agenda.
Video of Alice Taylor
To see the full selection of videos go the the Games Based Learning forum. I’d also recommend Matt Mason’s talk on pirating and how it adds value to the original, touching on how game modding evolved.
This year I was really sad to see that the Women in Gaming conference has been cancelled due to low delegate numbers. I am an avid gamer and I think the games industry is sometimes behind other areas of technology, where it could really benefit from getting more women involved in games development. Often women go for the human focused areas of development, such as user experience or copyright, which are often sadly overlooked in games development. Instead there are a steady stream of churned out games like Imagine Babies and its ilk, lacking original gameplay and creativity. While I am glad that the games industry is finally realising gamers are girls and women too and I value a diverse set of games to choose from, I don’t think it all needs to be Barbie dolls and toy soldiers in electronic form. Obviously this isn’t just due to a lack of women, but by cultural stereotypes and an industry that has increasingly large budgets and monolithic development houses. Independant games development however still have a wealth of opportunity.
There are however some amazing women involved in games development, one of whom is Robin Hunicke who is a games designer and producer. While at EA she worked on My Sims and Boom Blocks and their sequels before recently moving to ThatGameCompany, who developed the truly awesome Flower. She combines this with academic study on Artificial Intelligence and Video Games, building bridges between the theory and the application. Her research on dynamic difficulty examines different techniques for representing and reasoning about uncertainty, to see how these approaches can be extended and combined to create flexible interactive experiences that adjust on the fly.
I was lucky enough to see Robin talk at Gamecity last year and she spoke about how in order to be a better game designer you need to do much more than play games that you need to look outwards and experience as much of life a possible, reading and travelling. I think this is great advice no matter what your role, especially where you want to explore creativity. She also spoke passionately about using sketchbooks to capture ideas, to allow you to externalise ideas, and as creative people to capture ideas and work through some concepts, something which has definitely been true in my experience.
One of the things I’d like to thank Robin for is her focus on making games accessible to a wider audience in creative ways that doesn’t just mean making games easy (and boring). Games like Boom Blocks use complicated physics engines and while it is really easy to get to grips with the gameplay, through the intuitive wii remote and game responsiveness. It doesn’t isolate gamers by being easy or hard, but very cleverly has levels which can be played at a diverse set of skill levels, providing enough of a challenge to keep the most hardcore gamer engaged. It is highly sociable, being a game that begs to be played with friends and one I always get out to play with the non-gamers who come to visit. In addition it allows me to share levels I’ve created online with my friends. All of this adds up to a very accessible and sociable experience that is quite different from most games on the market. I think this a real reflection of the kind of gameplay that should be encouraged in game development when they are looking to widen their appeal.
She said in her letter to Kotaku about her move to ThatGameCompany:
“All my work is united by a single thread. I want to reach new people, with new experiences, via the medium of games and the language of game design.”
Robin’s second area of research also reinforces this, by examining how to evolve game narratives to the next level. Something that I think is essential to help broaden the appeal of gaming and for games to engage their users and to really find its feet as an art form in its own right. She says on her website:
“I’m also interested in how notions of fate, meaning and consequence can be communicated via video games. I believe that consequence is the key to expanding their narrative repertoire – for without consequence, actions have no weight and choices can do little more than satisfy our basest instincts and curiosities.”
I think a great example of this is seeing how Robin moved the Sims franchise along with the MySims release. If you look at the original Sims games you spent your time trying to manage your time between needing a wee and going to work to allow you to buy more stuff for your house. MySims made it less about this sort of capitalist aspiration and more sociable, focusing on developing relationships and creating things to give away, to support a mayor who needs to attract more people to his town. I think one of the things we can learn from the success of Facebook is that if you want to engage a female audience in your games that to make it sociable is a really great way to do it.
Let’s hope we see more people like Robin in the games industry, working as advocates for the indie games industry, as well as growing appreciation for the more user focused aspects such as writers and user experience designers. I highly recommend her UX2009 presentation which really shows how she has exposed the UX role within games development. Thanks Robin.