Saturday, 28 January 2012


As I like to affirm to myself as I push another curry into the microwave: Everything we do comes at the expense of everything else.
With that thought, please accept my apologies for neglecting you, my sweet maggoteers, and know that you are never far from my kind thoughts.

Christmas was spent playing Skyrim, playing with my son, and playing Skyrim with my son.
And therein we found the perfect demonstration of the perils inherent in gifting the player with narrative design powers:

So my son hikes up a mountain and chances upon a shack. Inside, he encounters an old man named Froki who is sat at a humble wooden table with his grandson, where they share a meal by candlelight. My son chats to them both. Froki explains how he was a poor father to his children, and since their demises he has found in his grandson the opportunity for redemption. His grandson was equally sanguine, expressing his love for his grandfather. It was a touching moment.
My son then sets about hurling fireballs at the old man, torturing him with magickal infernos. Froki squeals and his grandson leaps up and declares: Cool! You can do magick! I want to be like you!

Yep, it's humour from incongruity, and an unplanned incongruity at that.

I've kinda gotten into The Big Bang Theory. I find myself playing the predict the punchline game, and I seldom score any points, and that's the appeal of the show to me.
In the opening scene from Raj Moves in With Sheldon, Raj sits in his flat, hiding beneath his headphones in an attempt at drowning out the sex noises coming from his bedroom, where his sister and Leonard engage in Star Trek role play. At the cry of Open the landing bay doors; shuttlecraft approaching, Raj hurries from the flat.
At Wolowitz's house, Raj asks if he can sleep over.
Wolowitz duly sets up the punchline and asks what's wrong with Raj's bed.
Come, play guess the punchline with me! I'll add Raj's response at the bottom of this post.

Someone said that the secret to comedy is surprise. They obviously haven't run up to a stranger in the street and kicked him in the testicular zone. Of course, someone else said that the secret to comedy is timing. Doubtless, you won't have to google too hard to find other secrets.
Sorry to say: there's no secret. I know, I know: it's so much more comforting to believe that there are simple paradigms out there waiting to be ingested and metabolized into works of genius. Fact of the matter is, there're no easy answers and no certainties. Five years of blogging, and I'm still as uncertain as ever I was.

And so it is that we approach the gravitational pull of the beta black hole, with its lightless singularity of people and opinions. Deep breath!

Usability was fascinating as ever. I regard the usability test as a beta warm up. Six gamers hop on over to the Big Fish offices where they're ushered into a small room, sat at a monitor, offered beverages, and then filmed playing through thirty minutes of the the new batch of aspiring iHOGS. There then follows an interview, during which the big questions are debated with gut-wrenching honesty: What did you think of that one? Was it fun? Why was it fun? Do you want to play some more? What do you make of the story? Were the puzzles too hard, too easy, or about right? Would you buy it?

Ooh, I've always wanted to do this...
To preserve their anonymity, I shall assign fake names to our testers. I want to call tester number one Frismagellian - or Friz as I like to refer to her.
Friz is the nightmare - the fly in the ointment - the gamer who doesn't represent the majority, but sits on the fringes hurling stones and leopard faeces.
It started well: Friz had no problems with the interface, and she quickly joined the dots as my white rabbits led her from task to task. Hold up, she's pretty good at this. She twitched and jerked her way through every challenge with the unremitting energies of an autistic code-breaker. She reacted well to the surprise statues, chortling to herself, and also to Miss Thorn's leap from the cliff - indeed, Friz leapt from her chair with a matching violence. Yes, things were going... as I expected... as I hoped... which was... unsettling. Just too quickly. Far too quickly.
She was done in twenty minutes and sat drumming her fingers on the desk waiting for our producer to enter with her clipboard.
It had all gone so effortlessly. Not a hiccup. Not a solitary moment of confusion or panic or aimlessness.
What did you think Friz?
It's too easy and nothing made me think and the cut-scenes were sooo long and that girl - she keeps talking - and she's British right? Do the British say 'just in time'? Shouldn't it be 'just on time?'

Next up: Colonel Bourbon Hatsplash, a retired gentleman with virgin white hair. (A man!)
It was a contrast of gargantuan magnitude. He ambled and perused and scratched his ear and smelled the graphical coffee beans, and barely made it halfway through the supposed 35 minutes of gameplay I had imagined.
My task was thrown into the kind of stark light that is as terrifying as it is illuminating. How to design a game that appeals to all the Frizs and all the Bourbons of this world, and everyone inbetween? And that's only assuming that Friz and Bourbon do, indeed, constitute the opposing lips of the bell curve.

Things kinda balanced out after that. Korona, a sullen but intelligent lady with a moon face and pagan hair, made the kind of references to her husband's ire at her retreat into virtual worlds that made me very uncomfortable, and made me consider further my function as game designer. Marakesh was a tiny old lady who cackled merrily at everything, which endeared her to me greatly. (Too funny! she would exclaim, leaning back in her seat.) Rubina was the middle-aged, stern-looking lady who most closely played as I had envisaged and, correspondingly, was most lavish in her praises. And Chipotle-Airspangles approached the game with a seriousness and methodicity that let me know she was boss and if I had screwed up, she would seek out and expose my failings.

Upshot? Six for six. Which is like a royal flush in cricket.
All six testers laughed at the same places. All six testers struggled with and delighted in the cunningly concealed HO carrot. All six testers wanted to play further. Five were eager to purchase - only Friz was uncertain, explaining that she might purchase if she found more challenge inside the cyclopean town. (So my assumption of six-for-six, I guess, presupposes that the difficulty level I've prepared inside the town will sate Friz's urges.)
And the most common of the responses to the question: Why was it fun?
It was different; it was unpredictable.

That made me think.
Turn now to the latest ERS release: Maestro: Notes of Life.
ERS do polish like nobody else. Polish is important and good. However, reading through scores of reviews, it's evident beyond all doubt that the formulaic approach is wearing thin.

I'm disappointed that I didn't cajole all six testers into paroxysms of ecstasy; and I might even present the argument that it's disappointment that fuels creativity.
But every special response is enough to keep me focused on the task. Listening to the unedited recordings that the voice-over artists have sent us has further lifted my spirits: it's wonderful to hear the myriad outtakes of Julie-Ann and co cracking up at the dialogue - properly gasping for air. And I love that my team are developing their favourite gaming moments already.

Onwards and upwards.

Raj: Leonard's putting disgusting memories in my memory foam mattress.