The Average Gamer

Playing in Public: 5 Things Devs Need to Learn

Scotch HoppersHide and Seek, as well as being a popular children’s game (and an excellent way to get rid of younger nephews for up to half an hour, depending on how thick they are) is a London-based collective that runs, curates and funds creativity within the live-gaming arts. They’re pulling some next-level stuff, bringing artists and games developers and architects and musicians and technicians and all sorts of smart, creative people together and seeing what results, forging new ideas of what “play” can be. They’re pretty cool guys.

A few weeks ago, they kicked off the Hide and Seek weekender, a four-day festival of live-action games from new and established developers, down at the South Bank Centre in London. I even played one of them, and then went to a party where crotch-mounted Atari joysticks were used as fencing weapons. It all got a bit weird.

In addition to insurrection and crotch-jousting, though, they also hold a conference throughout the following Monday where the best and brightest minds in the games industry come together to talk about what the future of play could look like – or, more precisely, Playing in Public. Covering everything from pretending to be a killer bee to investment methods for active games to punching custard to the Olympics.

Hence, here are the five biggest lessons that developers – both Live and Computer, in many cases – should take away from the conference, distilling a whole day’s worth of sitting quietly in a room trying to look awake into something that you can read over your morning coffee for literally nothing.

Don’t make games to see if they’ll work – George Buckenham

Obvious, right? George Buckenham is a mainstay of the London indie-gaming scene, and his game Punch the Custard (in which you, well, punch some custard and some technology measures how many times you’ve punched it in 30 seconds) went down a storm at the Weekender. A lot of his games, including ghost-based shooter Hell is Other People and one where you had to wear a special vibrating helmet and shut your eyes whilst you play, are based off puns, experimentation, or a strange desire to see a daft idea through for far too long.

His one successful game (in his own words) – Squares, available on iPad – isn’t all that experimental at all. So if you’re trying to do something new, untested and wild, maybe see if the technology works first before you pin too much on making a proper game out of it. Pride, tenacity and curiosity don’t always result in worthwhile products.

Make the outcome matter – Bennett Foddy

Bennett Foddy, inventor of internet legend QWOP and more recent horse-based success CLOP, performed a five-minute presentation made up solely of weeping Olympians. Second places, near misses, and repeated, crushing failures were shown on the screen and he told the story behind each one, delighting in the incredible sadness etched on the faces of the distraught athletes.

He put forward the opinion that many Olympic sports are “dumb games with stupid designs,” and that as game designers we can – and do – create better mechanics, but we can’t yet trigger that level of utter, world-ending distress at missing the top space. Can games make people weep, and draw crowds of millions all over the world? Do the stories need to less outlandish, and closer to home, to connect with people? Maybe one day.

Do a Wizard of Oz test – Claire Redington

I run live games in my spare time, and I’ve stared down broken tech at 2 in the morning whilst crowds of angry players are hammering on the doors. I know all too well that, for all the great applications technology can provide, using it as a crutch for game experiences in live events is fraught with danger – just like in I, Robot, but with a broken strip light instead of a mechanical uprising.

SearchlightClaire Redington of the Bristol Watershed, a gathering space for arty, sciency and gamey types to mix together and create fascinating things, said how important it was to do a Wizard of Oz test. At some point in your game, the wiring might fail or the batteries might run out and you’ll find yourself encouraging players not to look behind the curtain lest the world crash down around their ankles. Don’t let that happen – make sure, as much as is possible, that the game can be experienced without too much technology being required for the experience.*

Focus on the unsettling – Kars Alrink

For new games to excel, they have to be strange. Kars Alrink, a man who’s designed games for pigs to play against humans (it improves their living conditions, apparently, and must therefore make them taste better as a result) championed this, saying that as things stand live games have been tamed and domesticated into a fine subset of genres. The biggest movements in the development industry aren’t going to come from people who play it safe, but those who deliberately push boundaries into weird places.

It’s hard to offer advice on this, obviously, as if anyone knew what the next big move was they’d be making it. But it’s coming from co-opting signals, of inverting the traditional power structures of cities and technologies to give power and expression to the user, not the creator.

Remove self-selection

Pick Up & Play GamesFor the longest time, I didn’t play online games. I tried to, a couple of times, but I found myself vastly outperformed by my opponents and promptly became dissuaded – and that stuck, so even though I’d only proven I wasn’t very good at Command and Conquer Red Alert 2, for example, I’d rule out playing all RTS titles online because of the same stigma.

I’m over it now. I still suck, but I’m better at dealing with it.

Jamie Woo, creator of Gargoyles – a cross between Operation and Twister that you play in teams, aiming to outmanoeuvre your opponents – wants to break this down. The above example is fairly common in gamers, but there are parts of society who will instinctively remove themselves from participation thanks to a perceived lack of ability. Making games democratic, and removing the mastery element from them, makes the playing field invitingly equal.

Hide and Seek run live gaming events throughout the year.

* Obviously, this tip is only for live games. If you remove the technology from a computer game you have Staring At A Wall, which is cheap to produce but not focused toward player engagement. Still, though – depending on fancy new advances as a computer game dev, rather than strong mechanics and interesting narrative, could be just as much as a problem.

One Comment

  1. Jim H

    8th Oct, 2012 at 10:20 pm

    I wish there would be a single player renaissance! I have nothing against games with an online component, but the trend has been for less emphasis on single player and more on the online component. I know it’s a less tedious way of creating a game because a strong story line isn’t needed. Throw players some weapons, occasionally some vehicles, toss in a few trinkets for rewards, give ’em stuff to battle and off it goes.

    As I look back over the years I have been a gamer there are so many games I still play regularly. Alongside my Intel i7 6 core 3.3 GHz water cooled processor, 24 GB RAM, dual GeForce GTX 580 Fermi video card, SSD main/1.5 TB secondary drive, SoundBlaster X-fi Titanium, 5.1 surround sound equipped custom $7K gaming rig sits my old Pentium 4, 2.2 GHz, 2 GB RAM, ATI 1950X video card, SoundBlaster Audigy 2 equipped, Windows XP SP3 controlled, 500GB master/slave drive old friend that still is jam packed with dozens great old games that won’t work on the Windows 7 Ultimate 64 bit driven new rig. And I still play them! I can’t count how many times I played the STALKER games with every mod I could find. And so many others. But, try to find ANYBODY online in those games that had an online component and it’s a waste land.

    I remember when Battlefield 2 was the best shooter around and how frustrating it was before they added Punk Buster to it. Now, it’s always empty, but because of the strong single player, it is still a game I play frequently. I loved the original Test Drive Unlimited but at the end of September Atari shut down the servers. Anybody remember Auto Assault? It died before it really started so maybe that isn’t the best example, but it still sold copies. All those people got the short end of the stick when it went away.

    What’s going to happen when Battlefield 3 or it’s rival(s) get a few years old and the severs for them get shut down, too? It won’t be long and this trend will become another planned obsolescence strategy to ‘force’ players to move on to whatever is next in a series and plunk down another $50, $60, $70 or more game. The old one will become a drink coaster or trash. Look at Battlefield 3. The single player on it lasts a few hours and is so tightly scripted that any replay is like the plot of the movie Groundhog Day. The same thing over and over. At least some games like GTA4 still have a strong single player component and you can do a bunch of other things than follow the story line

    Is it players don’t care about stories, characters, side plots, beautiful scenery, and a sense of ‘being there’ any more? I loved the atmosphere of the STALKER games. I could actually feel the coldness, the oppressive atmosphere, and the sense of danger in the place. I remember how in Clear Sky when I recognized familiar places and people it was almost like coming home again. Will there never be another set of games like Half-Life and Half-Life 2 with such a great story line? Even Fallout 3 and New Vegas presented a vast, open world and if I’m still around and have the hardware, I could play it 10 years from now like I do with all my old Call of Duty, Medal of Honor, and dozens of other games I STILL play.

    Atari shut down the servers for the original Test Drive on September 29th leaving a lot of unhappy players who put a lot of time into developing their online life. It was “Sorry about your luck. Go but Test Drive Unlimited 2. I have almost 1300 hours playing it and have quite a virtual life in the game with hundreds of cars, dozens of homes, and millions of dollars. I know someday the same thing will happen to me. And then what? I’m left with zilch and a game that will no longer work no matter how much I loved it.

    Is single player, PC resident gaming going away? It seems so and I have to believe it’s more to do with the gaming companies making maximum return on minimal effort. Then there are the “free” games like World of Tanks which IS technically free to play, but advancement to tanks that last longer than a minute or two before being destroyed takes forever. Of course, there is the advancement system that takes money, a LOT of money, that will buy you the things you need to be competitive. I dropped over $100 and got very little in return and decided I wasn’t spending another cent because I could have bough 2 complete games for what I wasted on that. By now, there are long time players that are so good and so well equipped noobs have to have very thick skin and extreme patience or lots of cash to compete

    I couldn’t round this babble-fest out without mentioning that sometimes the worst component of online play are the other players who seem to live only to ruin the experience for everybody else. The cheaters and rotten sportsmanship of far too many players in Test Drive 2 are the worst part of that game, for sure. It was in the early days of Battlefield 2 as well.

    Somehow, I don’t think that’s what gaming should be. Money seems to have ruined what was once a labor of love and a passion on the part of players. Look at what happened to STALKER 2. It was done but money fell short and the game isn’t going to be released unless some miracle happens. I don’t know how strong of an online component it has/had but if it was largely single player that is really too bad.

    Yeah, I wish gaming people would meet and decide that there is still a need for really good single player games. And then make them.