Sunday, 27 June 2010

The Little Bang

What a beautiful morning! Only, I'm not allowed to go into my garden because a girl blackbird keeps having a go at me because her chicks have hatched in my bush. Sheesh. So I've trimmed all my bushes but one.
Her aside, one of the first things I noticed when moving to Cambridgeshire was how tame the birds are. I have a bird bath which I keep replenished with water, and most days I scatter breadcrumbs about it, and the birds will happily feast just feet away from where I'm sitting. It's one of those lovely observations that I've logged away in case I ever have a character relocate. Which, if I think about it, happens in pretty much everything I've written.

And so to Doctor Who.
I'll confess that I was deeply disappointed with lead writer Mr. Moffat.
And here's why:
He forgot the kids.
From my pov, there were a few stand out episodes. I shed a couple of tears when the Doctor hung out with Vincent Van Gogh. The Rory auton concept used my favourite of emotive plot devices: the Jekyll and Hyde device! And the wonderfully romantic device of Rory loyally sacrificing everything to protect his loved one for thousands of years was topper.
But I can't see how any of this means much to a kid. Indeed, my son would often complain: 'Where's the monster?'
Because that's what I remember from my childhood: I remember amazing reveals where a person would take off their face and I'd recoil at their true ophidian identity; or those fat puckered suckers like columns of buttons on the Zygons' wet flesh. I remember giant maggots and the hooded monster Master with his eyeballs and their tributaries of blood vessels popping from his face.What I have no memories of at all are the more adult emotive interfaces of romance and duty and all those things that now have great meaning in my life.
I guess the die was cast from that opening episode in which Amy scurried about in her police woman strippergram outfit. (Well, yes, I have a vague recollection of Leela shadowing Tom's Doctor in an animal hide bikini, but I'm quite sure she didn't carry a pair of handcuffs with her.)
The BBC received many complaints. How is this suitable for my child/ren?
(Curiously, the BBC also received many complaints about the rejigged theme music.)

I guess the problem is that the diverse desires of a dual audience must be quite hard to marry. It's something that The Simpsons has nailed over the years: I watch it with my son and we both enjoy it; sometimes our responses are unified; other times they're disparate - notably, any pathotic strike drifts over my son's head - but there's something in there for us both, and we'll wet our pants as one whenever Moleman falls off his bicycle.
So Mr. Moffat: do continue with your brilliantly refined emotional topographies! But please remember the scary monsters ... lots of evil, angry monsters erupting with weeping pustules and bloodied stumps. At the heart of your demographic is that double entity: the boy sat on the sofa with his father. And if they have nothing worth sharing in their post mortem, then you've missed a trick: you've neglected to electrify that magical link between two generations.

Oh, and one last observation: You're gonna need a 'what's going on?' companion even dumber than Rory if you want us to understand what the heck was going on in that denouement.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

The Interactive Play (TM)

I'm becoming more and more convinced that the classic iHOG - or puzzle-adventure if you will, depending on how au fait you might care to be with fashions - should be labelled 'interactive play'. (TM :o)

On quizzing peeps about their experiences playing the hidden object portions of an 'interactive play' TM, it quickly struck me that the players were, even with no timer, attempting to complete the HO scene as quickly as possible - perhaps to the point that it was regarded as a distraction.
I ran this observation by our BF contact and she concurred: Players hurry through the HO scene in order to return to the meat of the game.
Curious, thought I. Why, then, would we want to include HO scenes?
From a dev pov, one answer is straightforward enough: HO scenes can be fashioned in 2-3 man days, and typically equate to around ten minutes of gameplay, if played twice (which is de rigeuer). Ergo, bang for bucks.

Not a lot of meaningful change to be found here.

Now this demographic aesthetic doesn't translate so easily to the other components - to the puzzles and mini-games, or to the inventory item quests (use crowbar on planks, etc.).
I get the strong sense that our players enjoy participating in the story. A HO scene is a means to an end: it develops nothing within the narrative. However, if you solve a puzzle to unlock a door, or if you do, indeed, remove the planks from a boarded window, then the narrative progresses.
Perhaps I might even venture to suggest that the appeal of the 'interactive play' TM is that the player progresses through a story, just as a reader does, but the player doesn't (shouldn't!) have to read pages of text AND the player feels as though they are influencing the outcome.

This is, in its own right, a peculiar concept. Many definitions of a 'game' include the pivotal argument that a game 'has a variable outcome'. The outcome of a novel, of a play, of an iHOG, is fixed, and any assertion that the player can influence the outcome is an illusion. This furthers my reclassification of iHOG to interactive play. TM.

But consider the potential ramifications of making that glass thing do stuff!

Where this leads me - and my time spent sifting through the players' forums appears to confirm this - is that, rather than being tacked on, the story is the very foundation of the iHOG.
Haven't the time and/or inclination to read and turn the pages of a book? Don't fancy pootling down to the playhouse? Watching a movie too passive an act? Let the interactive play provide you with a story, and guide you through with pretty pictures and whimsical diversions, and the sense of control over your environment... all from the comfort of your own swivel chair!

*Above images from PuppetShow: Souls of the Innocent, downloadable here. (It's pretty darned accomplished.)

Haven't posted about dressing up as promised... will rectify shortly. In the meantime, enjoy designing your own wedding dress!

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Dressing Down

I've been playing a good few Big Fish iHOG games lately - checking out the competition and all that - and two things have struck me: the strength and consistency of the parallels between puzzle-adventure games and plays (much more so than novels); and the overwhelming lack of discipline afforded the narrative in all its facets. It seems that an author is, quite rightly, expected to demonstrate a proficiency in plotting, characterisation, pacing and development, controlled exposition and foreshadowing, and so forth; however, if you add pictures and puzzles into the mix, then none of these writerly skills are held in high regard.
For example, take the fundamental (as in, my son was taught this at school) premise of creating immersion through sensory stimulae. When Edwina Margrave enters her world, she is guided through a series of olfactory stimulae: from the comfort of the roaring log fire and the chicken feast, and the gutted fish hanged from the beams, and the apple blossoms... through to the sweet shop, and the lavender and bouquet-garni... through to the mushrooms and toadstools and the decaying appendages and stagnant water. I'm hard-pressed to find anything resembling this in similar games, suggesting to me that either our competitors don't think that the evocation of smell memories adds to immersion, or that they don't care for the idea of immersion, or that they're simply unaware of its benefits.

The staple interview with a game writer goes something like this:
Interviewer: What are the pros and cons of writing for games as opposed to, say, writing a novel?
Author: Narrative/story in games is rarely taken seriously.

You can read Rhianna Pratchett's interview here: it's all but identical to any number of interviews I've read.
I have little desire to add to the debate other than to suggest that, if the writer is any good, then they will be the best person in the studio (by a loooong way) to govern the emotional stimulae of the game; a good writer understands what moves people, and knows how to accomplish this; ergo, any game dev team should have a good writer right there at the top of the ladder, with their blood-stained finger on the button.

Next post - Dressing Up - to follow...

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Hey Big Spender

I've just finished researching trends within the casual game buying audience, having scoured through hundreds of comments over on the Big Fish forums. The idea was to provide myself with handy reference lists to accompany the design of future projects.
These trends are extremely consistent - perhaps more so than I would have anticipated.
Thought it worth sharing my conclusions.


These are the attributes that players see particularly fit to praise/value.

1) Good length (3-4 hrs seems acceptable average). (Value for money!)
2) Puzzles not too hard and not too easy. (This seems impossible to balance without upsetting one half of the audience or the other. The greater of the two sins appears to be creating puzzles that are too easy, but it’s a close call either way. However, people are forgiving provided they feel they have value for money elsewhere! Quantity over quality?)
3) Immersive plot that ‘feels like it’s going somewhere’. (Plot which develops. When gamers talk of a game’s theme, they are typically referring to a single mood directed by the plot/story. Some like themes that make them laugh; others like the dark and brooding themes. There’s scant evidence to support the idea that a casual game can evoke more than a single emotion...)
4) Replay value. (Value for money!)
5) Originality.
6) Some backtracking: that is to say that a degree of freedom to explore is important; however, too much backtracking is annoying.
7) Clear goals.
8) Graphics. Not quite in the same league as music – good graphics tend to receive more praise than good music - however, like music, graphics are expected to be inoffensive by default. Beyond that, subjectivity reigns supreme.
9) Novelties. These typically include voice-overs and animations.
10) Customisation. This includes personalised cursors, and options for toggling/customising sparklies, timers, hint meters, and/or skip buttons.

It is long enough to make you happy with your money well spent, graphics are good, story line is even good enough to read along with, the items to be found are not too difficult, puzzles to figure out what to do next don't leave you scratching your head.
Haunted Manor: Lord of Mirrors.


These essentially boil down to frustration and boredom.

1) Glitchy code. This is a clear winner.
2) Repetitive music; overly loud music (esp. when drowning out voice-overs irrespective of adjustments in menu). Disappointingly, music is tolerated rather than treasured: its primary attribute must be that it does not annoy.
3) Puzzles that insult intelligence; hand-holding; overt use of sparklies. (Whilst target audience enjoys reliving their childhood, they now need a more adult context for what were previously immature emotions. In part, this is why we see so many scary dolls.)
4) Repetition, esp. repetitive, mechanical tasks; anything that induces boredom.
5) Penalties. Hint meter must refill quickly.
6) ‘Squinters’: very small hidden objects, or camouflaged objects, especially dark objects hidden in dark locations. (A good proportion of target demographic has poor eyesight!)
7) Time limits/restrictions.
8) No ability to backtrack; being confined to a single location; being evicted from a location.
9) Restrictions on length of user name.
10) Childish humour; sexy babes; male mentality.

I read the reviews and downloaded the demo. I was very disappointed. The story seemed OK but the graphics were poor.
The hidden objects were very easy to find and all the puzzles I tried were very simple.
Things may improve later in the game but I will not buy it.
Haunted Manor: Lord of Mirrors.

Just plain boring. Each chapter takes place in only one location and is very short. The puzzes or verrrry easy! I think I wasted my money.
Haunted Manor: Lord of Mirrors.


Here, people seem exceptionally more picky about getting value for money: they need serious incentives to fork out $20 for the CE when the SE is only $6 or $7.

1) Extra locations and puzzles are expected to make up the bulk of the CE material. (Players look for an extra 1-2 hours of bonus game play.)
2) Strategy guide must be integrated (accessible in-game).
3) HOG items should differ from CE.
4) Wallpapers and screensavers are discarded.
5) Reception to concepts tends to be pretty evenly split.

The concept artwork, built-in strategy guide, screensaver, and wallpapers would not tempt me to get the CE... but the extra hours of game play would.
Puppet Show: Souls of the Innocent.

And I'm glad to note that it says (and hopefully there will be) "hours of bonus play"; if that's the case it will truly be worth the hefty extra charge!
Puppet Show: Souls of the Innocent.


Overall an enjoyable game for me. The graphics weren't bad, nor was the music. There is a penalty for multiple clicking, but the hint button refreshing relatively quickly. Not sure about the replayability since the hidden objects were the same for me in the CE and the regular version. The storyline is a little odd, but there isn't really anything scary in it.
Haunted Manor: Lord of Mirrors.

I didn't find it to be a challenging game but that doesn't matter ~ it is a really satisfying game to play.
Haunted Manor: Lord of Mirrors.

The game does have a strength and that is the story. The story is intriguing and I found myself looking forward to knowing what happens next.
The Heritage.

I am limited in game buying so, here is my criteria:
1. Am I so into the game that I have to keep playing immediately after the hour is up?
2. Is the game re-playable? If yes, how likely am I to play it more than once? If no, will it keep me entertained for at least 3 hours of play?
3. How likely will it be available on another site, where there is unlimited play without buying the game?
The Heritage.

I normally do not like FROGS, but this one I do. Graphics are good and not to dark. There are no penalties for over clicking, which I seem to do when there are so many items I need to find. Hints recover in a nice time frame. Also appreciate that there appears to be no time to complete each level.
The Heritage.

Music wasn't distracting or irritating although I usually turn it off anyway.
Plenty of moving about - I like having to revisit areas to complete tasks. The H.O screens were clear and I only referred to the lists for the last couple of items in each.
Puppet Show: Souls of the Innocent.

Monday, 7 June 2010

Foundation Reversals

Ah, I'm sorry. A concept for Margrave IV.

I've fallen into a creative petri dish of late. Alongside the two games I'm currently working on, I've begun work on a play, almost completed the edit to act I of TCPP, and have been arting, musicalling, and poetising too.
I think I've now developed something of a formula for plotting - or, at least, for getting the ball rolling. Essentially, I have a beginning and an end, work in a number of end-of-act reversals (each of which must be as thrilling and as change-creating as possible), build character arcs around the emotional topography, and then edit to the quick. My plots have become a string of good then bad then good then bad then good, etc. states for the protag. Natch, the emotions are wide-ranging, and the words 'good' and 'bad' in this context are little more than rules of thumb; but this is proving to be a super method for erecting the tent poles with minimum fuss and with maximum stability.

The above pic - a character concept for Margrave IV - was designed around another of those strong, visceral emotive blows of which I'm so enamoured. There's something about bared teeth, and there's something about staring eyes...
Oh, and you can't go wrong with a good 'concealed identity' reversal!

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Bottling Emotion

As the guys scatter the last few crumbs of love upon Margrave III, I busy myself paving the way for Margrave IV. We have map; we have intro and four acts (and corresponding reversals); we have the core of a design document and a style guide; and we will soon have the emotional topography guide. You know, I've never seen one of these in my decade of game developing; and yet it seems to me a fundamental guide... provided that you consider a game as an experience.
With this guide, the chaps are able to make informed choices, and know where to stipple in sinister shadows, or where the apple blossom falls; they can decide between melodies beaten breakneck from a xylophone, or a barren soundscape of groaning wind; the chimney stacks are garnished with fat pots, stuffed with birds' nests, or they are crooked and tall and wouldn't seem out of place in a death camp.
Because it all adds up - all these details pull up on their scooters to dance to the same tune.

By the same token, I made the decision to tailor puzzles to the specifications of the mood. So, rather than wondering whether to place, say, a 'match the pairs' puzzle or a 'figure out the equation' puzzle - rather than flitting about brain nodes like an electro-chemical butterfly - I began to select 'catch those wacky boggle-eyed critters' for lighter moods, and 'find the stabby, slimy, gnarled objects in this scene of dolls nailed through the face to broken mirrors' for... ahem... darker moods.

Really, we don't do much more than that. Our plots... our stories... our puzzles and riddles... are the bones upon which we drape emotional flesh. If the reader, or the player, feels nothing, then we fail.

So wouldn't it be quite something to be able to capture and bottle all manner of emotions!
Every now and then, I stumble upon something which makes me feel a certain way... which invokes in me a visceral reaction. I have to catalogue all these stimulae, and I kinda see them as bottled emotions. However, they're probably not distilled at that point, and it can be a hardy challenge attempting to filter the essence from each bottle. I know the contents of bottle A make me feel angry, but why?
Some recent visceral hits: A google image search which filled my monitor with people pointing at me (resulting emotion: paranoia); a stream of fire lanterns passing over my garden in the dark and rain (resulting emotion: child-like wonder; maybe a bit of pathos in there too); the music of Grouper (resulting emotion: hmm... very complicated... like I'm peacefully dying on a mossy bed in a still forest).

If I may, I'd like to share a handful of dream cards with you. The mechanics behind the cards are simple and scalable, and were tested and tuned using bits of paper. Think of this as a plot if you will: once it's stable and charged with interest, it's time to paper with emotions. And that's when to pull out those stoppers and sip!