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Apr 28

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Clay Shirky has a transcript of an interesting talk he gave about the over-abundance of free time people now have because of modern technology and how it’s wasted on watching sitcoms.  This surplus of cognitive capacity is slowly being redirected toward more productive activities. Instead of being a passive audience, some people now spend time editing Wikipedia or organizing guilds in World of Warcraft rather than watching TV.

So how big is that surplus? So if you take Wikipedia as a kind of unit, all of Wikipedia, the whole project–every page, every edit, every talk page, every line of code, in every language that Wikipedia exists in–that represents something like the cumulation of 100 million hours of human thought. I worked this out with Martin Wattenberg at IBM; it’s a back-of-the-envelope calculation, but it’s the right order of magnitude, about 100 million hours of thought.

And television watching? Two hundred billion hours, in the U.S. alone, every year. Put another way, now that we have a unit, that’s 2,000 Wikipedia projects a year spent watching television. Or put still another way, in the U.S., we spend 100 million hours every weekend, just watching the ads. This is a pretty big surplus. […]

And this is the other thing about the size of the cognitive surplus we’re talking about. It’s so large that even a small change could have huge ramifications. Let’s say that everything stays 99 percent the same, that people watch 99 percent as much television as they used to, but 1 percent of that is carved out for producing and for sharing. The Internet-connected population watches roughly a trillion hours of TV a year. That’s about five times the size of the annual U.S. consumption. One per cent of that is 10,000 Wikipedia projects per year worth of participation.

I think that’s going to be a big deal. Don’t you?

via Slashdot

Apr 21

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I’ve played pen & paper role-playing games quite a bit in the past. Being a game master is great training for game design: you have to create an exciting and entertaining experience for your friends on a regular basis.

One thing a game master must do is create a lot of non-player characters. The challenge is to create memorable characters on a regular basis. After creating what must be a few hundred characters, I figured a few simple tricks. These tricks are useful whenever you’re creating new characters, whether they’re for a pen & paper RPG, a video game or even a novel.

The key to a memorable character is distinctiveness. The character must stand out from others — nobody remembers the average Joe. If your character is distinctive in multiple ways, that’s even better. I try to create characters that are distinctive in 3 different aspects:

  • Appearance: The character should be obviously different by simply looking at her. This is particularly important for characters that are not actually seen, only described — like in a novel. A character with a peculiar haircut might be good enough for a movie or a comic book, but it would probably be hard to describe memorably in a novel.
  • Actions: The character should act in ways that are different from the norm. This can take the form of special abilities (like a superpower or a peculiar weapon the character always uses) or the way the character acts (a weird way of speaking or is she’s paranoid, for example).
  • Background: The character’s past should be interesting, to somehow hook into whatever you’re creating. A character could be an orphan, or have trained with a secretive order of ninjas for example (or both, like Bruce Wayne).

Let’s take Captain Jack Sparrow as an example of a memorable character. He has a distinctive appearance, what with the thick black eye-liner, the dreadlocks and the bandanna, he most definitely acts in a memorable way, thanks to Johnny Depp’s wonderful acting, and he has a distinctive past, having been the captain of a mutinous pirate crew turned undead.

Another good example is Darth Vader. Vader’s apperance is definitely unique, with his black outfit that doesn’t show a single inch of skin. His mastery of the force gives him unique abilities that make his actions distinctive. As for his past, it’s interesting enough that it spawned a whole trilogy of hit movies.

Of course these guidelines aren’t the most subtle thing in the world, so they’re probably not ideal for stories with very realistic characters. The broad strokes these guidelines create are very good at creating memorable larger than life characters however, and that’s a type of character that’s useful in a lot of games.

Apr 14

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Gamasutra has an interesting opinion piece on why talented people end up making poor games, especially when it comes to licensed games:

Specifically I’ve been thinking recently about why good people make bad games. It’s amazing to me that I can go and speak with someone working on a movie licensed title, and they’ll be full of legitimate enthusiasm, real ideas, and almost convince me - OK, this time they’re going to get it right.

Then the game comes out, releasing day and date with the movie, with under a year of development time, and totally flops critically.

What’s depressing about this scenario is that nobody wonders why. Everybody on the team already knows! The schedule was too short, the demands from the licensor were unreasonable, and the project wasn’t well managed.

Some of the comments at the bottom of the page are very insightful:

The environment is not conducive to risk-taking:
A lot of developers feel that because the industry (especially the console industry) is such a stratified and approvals-ridden space that there is not much room for creativity. The average would-be game developer these days has to put a lot of muscle and reputation behind an idea to get it approved the 47 required times by different parties and still have it see the light of day.

Personally, I believe it’s often because quality is at the bottom of the list of priorities for the developer, the publisher and the licensor. Releasing on time is more important than making a good game because missing, say, the release of the licensed movie would cost a lot of sales. Not going over the budget is a higher priority because the name of the license is seen as influencing sales more than reviews. Putting a good bullet-point on the back of the box is a higher priority because more people read the back of the box than read reviews. I’ve heard of all of this from many people working at many companies. It’s hard to make a quality game when the people with the most power over the project see quality as a “nice to have”.

Still, there are ways to make quality licensed games. The best approach I’ve found is to find a fun and simple core gameplay and focus on it, removing everything that’s not essential to the game. Making a simpler, smaller game results in a better title at the end because you had the time to do it properly. You’re better with a few good features than a lot of half-finished features.

Apr 7

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Tutorials suck. Nobody likes learning the rules of a game before playing it. That’s one of the reasons casual games are so popular: shallow learning curve. Yet players must learn how to play your game.

The best approach I’ve seen is the way Bioshock does it (Half-Life 2 is similar and really good too). The game starts slowly, setting ambiance without too much action. You just move around, exploring the world of the game. The important thing is that it makes you do the basic actions in the game — moving, looking around, activating stuff, using a weapon, etc. — in a slower paced, safe environment while you’re exploring. It only prompts help if it detects that you’re stuck.

What’s brilliant is that it makes you discover the rules of the game by yourself rather than explain them to you. This is both more fun and more memorable than being taught everything in a rigid way. You’re more likely to remember something you figured out by yourself than something you’re told.

Removing visible tutorials applies to more game types than just first-person shooters. You just need to open the game with a safe environment where players can experiment with the game. You put a few basic puzzles requiring the use of the game’s basic skills and you’re set. The key is to trust players will figure out the way to play the game themselves — and if your interface is intuitive enough, they will. If they don’t, then you can give gentle tips that help them along without interrupting their experience.

Apr 1

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So it’s been about 3 months since I’ve started updating 5 times a week. While it was a fun challenge and I learned a lot doing it, it has also taken quite a lot of time to write all of this. Doing the daily updates didn’t bring the boost in visits I hoped it would, but it has taken a toll on my personal life.

So I’ll be slowing down a bit, updating less often. I plan on updating the site every Monday still, so I’m not abandoning the  site at all. This will also likely improve the quality of my posts, since I won’t have to find something worth writing about each day.

See ya next Monday!