Filtering by Category: VideoGames

Video Games and possibilities

Two quick Unified Resource Locator that caught my eyes yesterday evening during my commute:

  • Sometips by Jordan Mechner about game design principles for narrative games. The second hand "List the actions the player actually performs in the game and take a cold hard look at it. Does it sound like fun?" is an interesting filter to prioritize the interactions you want your users to be engaged in. A sort of follow-up to Crawford's list of verbs I mentioned the other day
  • Choose Your Own Adventure (thanks Carly for this), a visualization of interactive books

Why do I blog this? both are about games/entertainment but these principles/viz can be applied to other domains. I see them as important interaction design heuristics.

Playulf09 write-up

Playful 09 Went to Playful last week in London. A one-day event about games and play, this conference struck me as fascinating because the organizers went beyond the classical lists of speakers from the video game industry. People on stage came from various background: web developers, hackers, geeks, bloggers, interaction designers, art directors, etc... It seems that this was done on purpose as the first editions of Playful were a bit closer to the video game industry. As of last year, the organizers seemed to be willing to go beyond this and bring together a more diverse roster. In the introduction, it was said that "playful was about video-game design but we felt that something was missing... it was actually 'everything else' so we opened it to other fields". I couldn't agree more on that since i think the game designers and interaction design are part of the same practice (which does not imply there aren't any singularities and idiosyncrasies). I tried to list the sort of insights I collected below, for each speaker in a very unstructured way (forgive also the broken English of my notes).

Roo Reynolds (slidecast here)talked about films and games, and how films adapted after games generally suck (based on various examples: . His conjecture was that making a film out of a game is harder than the other way around. Especially because films revolve around a plot. The only film that portrays a game correctly might be TRON. Roo also wondered whether it is possible to create a film based on game mechanics.

Kareem Ettouney from Media Molecule's LittleBigPlanet gave an interesting description of what happens "behind the scenes". He addressed the notion of large-team collaboration in game design. To him, the biggest challenge was the amount of talent to try to create one thing: "Even 4-persons bands have issue so it's more troublesome for game companies... you start being hierarchical, conservative, hold all the strings... as in the old school movie models. Then we started hiring exceptional talents and we remembered what it was like to work at other places, where we did not want to listen to directions". One of his point was that "ownership = responsibility + accountability" as they realized they couldn't do the "old school direction"... so they figure out their new model. Ettouney contrasted the "review approach" (more like a critique about what people did after you asked them to "do the work") and the "input perspective" (sit down and talk about what people bring to the table as solution to problems).

Daniel Soltis from tinker.it then dealt with his interest in hardware hacking and games. I like the way he stated how "we don't make games but we design playful experiences", which is a bit different (especially from the video game industry's viewpoint). What was interesting too was how he showed the opportunities to go beyond the screen and keyboard model. The challenges to do so are quite tough but they could lead to compelling solutions: asynchronous play, geographically-distant play or a changing pool of players (or combination of these variables). Some examples already exist: giant score board, chessboard with giant pieces, Foursquare. However, the mobile phone is perhaps not the best platform... eyes on a small screen... still a device used in one way... and no tactile pleasure of game pieces.

The last bit of the matrix above (drawn from my notes of Soltis' slides) was filled with interrogation marks and he showed few possibilities that I liked a lot:

  • The Reverse Geocache Puzzle by Mikal Hart which is a puzzle box that only opens up at specific locations
  • Oyster card snowflake: an RFID-enabled snowflake generator which uses the London Oystar card: placedalongside a busy corridor, passers-by are invited to use their Oystercard to discover what kind of snowflake they are.
  • iphonehangtime a fun application for the iPhone and iPod Touch that uses the internal accelerometers to measure how long the device is in free fall, from the time it leaves your hand, to the time you catch it again.

Lucy Wurstlin from 4ip presented a set of projects after this nice quote by David Lloyd George: "Play is nature’s training for life. No community can infringe that right without doing deep and enduring harm to the minds and bodies of its citizens". The two projects I liked were audioboo (a sound-sharing website that aims at "becoming the YouTube of the spoken word") and mapumental: an interesting application that help to visualise any neighbourhood in the UK by transit times:

Robin Burkinshaw interviewed by Matt Locke: the discussion was about the Alice and Kev project, an interesting crossmedia approach built in a very grassroots way:

" This is an experiment in playing a homeless family in The Sims 3. I created two Sims, moved them in to a place made to look like an abandoned park, removed all of their remaining money, and then attempted to help them survive without taking any of the game’s unrealistically easy cash routes. It was inspired by the old ‘poverty challenge’ idea from players of The Sims 2, but it turned out to be a lot more interesting with The Sims 3’s new living neighborhood features.

I have attempted to tell my experiences with the minimum of embellishment. Everything I describe in here is something that happened in the game. What’s more, a surprising amount of the interesting things in this story were generated by just letting go and watching the Sims’ free will and personality traits take over."

The humble approach of Robin combined with the reading was very special and pertinent. And I like how he said "virtual photography is a hobby of mine, i have a whole flickr stream".

James Bridle was introduced as the "most analogue digital person I know" by the conference organizer. In his presentation that you browse over there, he exemplified to what extent "awesomeness is more important than innovation". Starting from a critique of commercial definitions of innovation, he showed what is awesome to him making connections with Douglas Adams or Thomas Pynchon. Two instances particularly echoed with my interests. First, the work of Zak Smith who created an illustration for every single page of Thomas Pynchon’s Novel “Gravity’s Rainbow":

And Tom Phillips, an artist who painted over every page of a Victorian novel to create a new narrative:

The presentation was even more curious when Bridle started to discuss Babbage's machine, Naughts and Crosses engine, the absence of Deep Blue for Go and a MatchBox Go engine.

Katy Lindemann gave a talk about behavior change through games (which some people refer to as "persuasive gaming"): ChoreWars (allows you to get experience points the more housework you do), Fiat EcoDrive (Nike+ for cars), Glucometers for Nintendo DS, a piano staircase, a weird writing robot at the Houses of Parliament to communicate with representatives.

Playful 09

Russell Davies was perhaps the highlight of the day as his talk revolved around the contrast between "world-building" versus "bubble-building". Based on the model railways metaphor, he described these two approaches: "world-building" corresponds to mimicking reality while "bubble-building" consists in putting the railway in your garden where you cannot try to replicate anything (it allows building a "bubble of suspense"). To him, world building is more difficult and he is more interested in "barely games": collecting, negotiating, pretending and inattention.

Collecting is cool and important in gaming (Pokemon: the actual play is less important than the collecting... and you then invent games with objects you collect. noticin.gs is a good example about this approach. Pretending is even more important and collecting things is great for pretending. You can turn Mario into a pistol or use luxury products (he showed how watch are the ultimate pretending items).

Davies then demonstrated various "pretending" metaphors: Tactile 3D (a 3D interface to navigate your files), 3D mailbox... which do not "work", people simply do not use them because they are not subtle and demand total attention, there's a need to bury pretending details.

[at which point Davies showed fake emails from people pretending to work in huge companies, which I always find hilarious]

So what would a "barely game" feel like, according to him?

  1. design for walking around (the time I have to play game)
  2. not looking at a scree (worried with AR which is too demanding)
  3. uncertain/socially-decided rules
  4. useful OR stupid
  5. high pretending value

Good candidates for this: iPhone app to record noise samples, Situated audio platform (SAP: use your device to browse geotagged world sounds, wikipedia audio entries, noises of bombs you can throw), personal informatics devices (nike+, nintendo's walk with me) hooked to something more complex, RJDJ for iPhone (music that changes depending on the noise captured by your microphone or the accelerometer), etc.

And then I had to leave to catch my flight :( More write-ups on the playful website, as well as at Roo Reynolds, Suw Charman-Anderson and more.

Why do I blog this? Messy notes to structure a little bit what I gathered from this conference. It was typically the sort of conference from which you come back with plenty of little insights and nuggets that fuel your mind. Besides, a great game-related event with a low number of CGI and not many WoW screenshots that generally bore me. I wish I could have stayed in the afternoon.

A bunch of game controllers

A bunch of game controllers... A bunch of stuff about game controllers is a new project I recently started with Laurent Bolli from Bread and Butter. The aim of the project is to focus and analyze "game pads" in terms of historical evolution as well as meaningful issues regarding their design. We collect lots of game-pads and will analyze them according to various issues, asking questions and drawing implications. The point here, from a research perspective, is to examine objects themselves. For once, in my UX work, it's less about how people use/what people do than "what do these artifact have to say about interaction design?" Will try to put my projects notes on this tumblelog.

Testing the Nintendo DSi

Nintendo DSi Recently acquired a Nintendo DSi. Although I have a DS for sometime, I wanted to see how the user experience could be reshuffled through the new features provided by Nintendo.

The first interesting change is that you can download games from DSi ware virtual shop. Simply put, there's no game sold with the console! You plug in the interwebs, see what you can buy with 1000 points and download it onto the internal drive of the DSi. It takes a short amount of time that you spend watching a bunch of Nintendo characters who race to fill box with blue liquid (which means that the game download is complete). Fortunately, this time, the web browser (Opera) is free. What this means is that part of the software is dematerialized (no cartridges).

Nintendo DSi

Another important addition consists in the two cameras that allow you to take photos with eleven different lenses and exchange photos with other Nintendo DSi systems. The basic piece of software enables the user to manipulate content in very basic ways (stretch a photo, add moustaches...) and create new game mechanics (as in the Wario Ware game you can buy with your 5000 points). Of course the quality is so-so but I am more intrigued by how basic games could be implemented on top of that, than using the DSi to replace my camera.

Perhaps the most striking change lies in the small improvements and variety of usage allowed by the new features: web integration/access is very interesting and it turns the console into a platform to do other things than gaming. I actually used it last week in our Lift weekly meeting to access Google docs. The whole user experience is improved through very simple UI transformations. It's interesting to observe how dealing with memory issues on the DSi has changed: you have virtual "slots" where you can download applications from DSi ware and the addition of an SD card slot is also a good move to enable the use of external content.

On the minus side though, the loss of the GBA cartridge slot (then no weird add-on!) and the "yet another new power adapter" is again an issue. Moreover, it's not possible (so far) to read MP3 because they wanted to support the AAC music format; I know it allows you to alter the pitch and speed but I don't have anything in this format (yet).

Why do I blog this? as a user experience research intrigued by mobile technologies, the DSi is an highly curious piece with good things ahead. For two reasons:

  1. it's not longer a device uniquely devoted to gameplay: users can be engaged in web-based interactions, play with pictures and sounds and I am pretty sure there will be improvements and tools to build sth around them.
  2. it also disrupts the mobile gaming experience: playing with cameras or material from SD cards is perhaps more common after seeing games on cell-phones but it's still a good step for the video game console designers. For instance, Wario Ware micro-games with the camera are very curious (although a tad difficul depending on the light conditions). Furthermore, It seems to me that the social component will also be a hot topic using different contextes (colocated versus distant play).

Prevalent indoor environment in computer games

"most virtual environments still rely on the cinematic idea that the virtual space extends off-screen even though it can neither be seen or accessed. Hence the popularity of games settings such as labyrinths, prisons, caves and interior chambers of pyramids and the like. The spatial frameworks efficiently spatialize a virtual environment, endowing it with the implicit sense of being an extensive environment"

Read this morning in "The Virtual (Key Ideas)" (Rob Shields)

Why do I blog this? Although the situation has changed a lot since the 80-90s, I find this point intriguing in terms of interaction/game design history.

Lucasarts material

the story of lucasarts People interested in the history of video-games and in the material behind production may be intrigued by "Rogue Leaders: The Story of LucasArts" (Rob Smith)

the story of lucasarts

I received my copy the other day and focused my attention on all this curious prototypes and documentation of game design. Maniac Mansion or Secret of Monkey Island meant a lot to me and it's refreshing to stay the history behind. The book is a thorough survey of a video game company with lots of concept art, character sketches, storyboards and timelines.

the story of lucasarts

All these impressive maps and graphs were really an important component of game/level design at the time. Simply, because the game itself was really close to these elements; whereas today game levels are far different from the maze depicted above. It does not remove the value of this documentation and I am pretty sure there are lessons to draw from these.

Why do I blog this? an interesting book about Lucasarts game design practices, surely some insights to draw for my own research.

Social practices around mobile gaming

Japanese kids playing gameboy This picture of kids I encountered in Japan in 2004 playing with a game-boy exemplify one of the most intriguing feature I observe in gaming: a situation where only one person has a game device and the others are participating without it, in their own way. This is a common situation in gaming, one can also observe it on game consoles (where one person plays with the pad and the other helps in a less formal way).

In their paper presented at CHI 2008 "Renegade Gaming: Practices Surrounding Social Use of the Nintendo DS Handheld Gaming System", Christine Szentgyorgyi, Michael Terry & Edward Lank describes an interesting exploration of the social practices related with a mobile game platform. Unlike my picture above, they investigated players who had their own mobile consoles. Based on a qualitative study, the authors studied how players engage in multiplayer games via ad-hoc, wireless networking and how it affects the social gaming practices.

In their results, they identify three themes related to the multiplayer gaming practices of the Nintendo DS:

" renegade gaming, or the notion that users reappropriate contexts traditionally hostile to game play; pragmatic and social barriers to the formation of ad-hoc pick-up games, despite a clear desire for multiplayer, collocated gaming; and private gaming spheres, or the observation that the handheld device’s form factor creates individual, privatized gaming contexts within larger social contexts."

The paper provides informative elements about these themes and also tackles their design implications:

"we focus on two particularly salient design implications suggested by the data, namely better support for ad-hoc, pick-up gaming, and mechanisms to expand the social gaming experience (...) Mechanisms that allow one to more easily locate other local DS gamers, invite a player to a multiplayer game via the DS itself, join preexisting games, and gracefully exit games would all help address the desire for pick-up games. The implementation of these suggestions is certainly technically feasible for a system such as the DS (...) To help create a broader social context, the system could provide provisions to externally display game state on a shared display so non-players could observe game action. "

Why do I blog this? gathering material for a potential project about social gaming practices for a client. This is quite an exciting topic and I am try to collect some material about it in the context of mobile games. I am quite sure that lessons can be learned from the Nintendo DS and that it would be possible to transfer them into a cell-phone context.

The red button interface

Possibly some weird work for computer case and cell phone designers: Parents should have a "red button" to disable a game they feel is inappropriate for their child, says the EP Internal Market Committee. So, the solution to avoid kids playing with games that are not suitable for them is... a red button. More information on the European Parliament website:

"Members of the committee are particularly worried about on-line games, which are easy to download onto a PC or a mobile phone, making parental control harder. Until PEGI on-line is up and running, the report proposes fitting consoles, computers or other game devices with a "red button" to give parents the chance to disable a game or control access at certain times."

Why do I blog this? A sort of red-button-determinism like this is quite hilarious. The idea of adding a new button that would comes out from the blue (like this) to prevent kids from inappropriate content sounds so passé that I can't help thinking about odd game devices (cell phones with gigantic buttons, desktop computers with switches) and, of course, the inherent problems that may happen!

Mobile Monday Amsterdam

Directions Some random notes from Mobile Monday Amsterdam, where I was invited last monday (to give a talk about "what the hell happened to location-based games"). The event was more specifically about mobile gaming/entertainment:

  • Jeroen Ellferich interestingly brought this intriguing question: would you differentiate an iphone from an ipodtouch? is a Nintendo DS a mobile game platform? what about eee pc?
  • He also reported on the odd fact that the most downloaded games today are the same as 5 years ago: tetris, pacman, who want to be millionaire, monopoly here and now, bejeweled, showing how the field is not very innovative.
  • To him, the dark side of the mobile industry have the following characteristics: flattening growth traditional developers and publishers on mobile in troubles, fragmentation and porting hell (450 phone models!), flawed vale chain and low rev shares, lack of innovation in past years
  • BUT, he showed that there is some hope: iphone and android trigger mobile content revival, flat-free and connectivity become the norm, there is a business case for location-based games (!?), social networks and games are a "killer combo", touchscreen, tilt, compass are opportunities too
  • Kamar Shah, formerly at Nokia, described how users are far from the dream of having a simple mobile entertainment platform (as simple as we had on TV). He showed how people are tired because of fragmentation (operators, services, partners), experience is generally shit, it does not work, people pay twice... and unfortunately bad meme spread faster
  • Kamar also mentionned that people want to watch stuff, tv, high def, replicate their experience on the mobile: it's the platform and the content that will drive the revenue, not the hardware.
  • His main point was that the consumer experience is based on 5 key elements: how to find, try, buy, manage and share:
    1. we should make content accessible (over the air, on device, off the portal, on the portal...), consumer choose afterwards and have different habits: "content is king, distribution is king kong"
    2. people need to be able to try: demo, free-trial (website, on the phone), engage consumers otherwise the top 3 games will still be tetris and pacman!
    3. you have to enable all payment and billing mechanisms (micropayments...)
    4. when you buy food, you put it in the fridge, where do you put mobile games? there's a need of storage and manage in an easy place; apple does that really well: they have a marketplace where to go
    5. sharing content for free: it has to work, if you like sth, you'd like to pass it on, you should be able to send it via email, bluetooth...
  • Redefining the consumer experience implies taking care of these 5 issues.
  • He concluded that the financial crisis will have important consequences: people loose their job, can't pay the rent, how will they find the money to buy games? what's gonna happen? Kamar said that (1) people will have more time, (2) consumer demand will go down, people will learn what to do with what they have (the complexity of mobile phones), will educate themselves. It's good for our industry, because it's expensive for the industry to educate consumers. They will do it by themselves, (3) we will be able to take our technology right (and it takes time)

Thanks Yuri van Geest and Maarten Lens-FitzGerald for the invitation!

Console game as a social place

Gestural interfaces It seems that we finally have some good research material about the user experience of the Wii. Working on this topic for two years for a client, I was amazed by the lack of paper concerning how players use the Nintendo console and its gestural interaction devices. It seems that "Wii All Play: The Console Game as a Computational Meeting Place by Amy Voida & Saul Greenberg is a good step towards the understanding of Wii UX.

The paper reports the results of a field study that focused on examining collocated group behavior. What is interesting here is the analysis of console gaming as a "computational meeting place for a diverse population of gamers": a family entertainment device of some sort. The main claim of the paper, supported by results from the field study lies in showing that what makes video-game fun is not the game itself but the "sociability that surrounds the gameplay".

I won't enter the result details, but the paper shows the different roles the console has in being "a meeting place":

"Console games serve as:

  • a meeting place for social interaction
  • a meeting place with porous boundaries
  • a meeting place for gamers with varied levels of expertise
  • a meeting place for gamers with varied preferences for gaming genres & styles of gameplay
  • a meeting place between interpersonal relationships and the competition of gameplay
  • a meeting place between gaming and its stereotypes, and
  • a meeting place between adults-as-parents and adults-as-gamers"

The paper describes each of these roles by showing various examples. Any interested reader should read them btw, things such as "Anything electronic I would do" are gems!

The part about design recommendation is also highly worthwhile, see some excerpts:

"Games designed to provide a meeting place for groups of gamers should undertake some combination of the following:

  • Allow gamers to rotate in and out of the gameplay easily
  • Make use of input devices with intuitive mappings (button-based input devices were less well-liked by the gamers in this study than gestural and physical input devices)
  • Combine a shallow learning curve for novice gamers with more challenging gameplay for more expert gamers
  • Provide modes of gameplay that allow players with different skill levels to play with or against each other
  • Explore modes of gameplay that alter the game in significant ways for different groups of players so that the owner of the console or the game does not always have an advantage
  • Provide modes of play that downplay competition between players (e.g., fostering non-serious competition or competition between the gaming group as a whole and the computer)
  • Appeal to gamers with different gaming preferences within a single game (e.g., by offering compelling gameplay for a gamer who is typically drawn to strategy games while also appealing to other gamers who may be drawn to games with more challenging puzzles or immersive stories)
  • Foster audience participation or an otherwise enjoyable audience experience
  • Explore ways of extending the social experience of group console gaming into the larger ecology of shared media."

Why do I blog this? lot of material here for a new research vector about the Nintendo Wii. I am really glad to have found a reference about this topic. Will try to accumulate material about this before hiring an intern to help on this. Plus, I like the message here, about the "computational meeting place", well-supported by the data analysis.

Real-Life treasure hunt on the Nintendo DS

Morning commute An intriguing use of the positioning system of Nintendo DS wifi is described on Gamasutra. Creative director and lead designer Justin Leingang (at Aspyr) is working on an original Nintendo DS title that uses each player's DS to create "a real-life treasure hunt,":

"The project, which bears the working title Treasure Troves, (...) One of Treasure Troves' main input mechanics operates by scanning for nearby wi-fi networks and generating items based on each network's unique frequency. (The game continues to uncover items and and optionally emit aural feedback even when the DS is closed, allowing players to "play" in public without needing to actively monitor the system.) These items can then be managed and traded with other players to create special item sets, and can be used for a variety of player-customized in-game functions. (...) For example, each item emits a distinct sound, which include musical notes and phonetic noises; the items can then be replicated and arranged on a Mario Paint-like musical grid. Like items and other custom creations, these resultant compositions can be traded with other players."

Why do I blog this? what an awesome game idea and of course the point here is not to position the Nintendo DS in an accurate way. Instead, it's simply about using existing Wifi networks to create specific items. Surely an intriguing way to tie in the physical and the digital.

Another interesting element here is that it's highly uncommon to see this sort of development on a platform such as the Nintendo DS. Although it's doable to hack the thing for this sort of purpose, it's generally more difficult for game studio to make it acceptable for Nintendo. Perhaps I should re-read the TRC:

Portable gaming habits

Some insights from a recent study by NPD about portable gaming (collected from over 3,200 pre-identified sample owners of portable devices from September 16-23):

"79 percent [of those polled say] they use their portable device in-home, far more than any other location. (...) Gameplay is the feature used by most (84 percent) on the PlayStation Portable. Slightly more than one third of PSP owners are watching movies (35 percent) and listening to music (33 percent) on their device (...) Ninety two percent of Nintendo DS owners are playing games by themselves followed by close to one quarter playing games with friends locally using one game cartridge.„ (...) Listening to music dominates iPod usage (96 percent) followed by playing games (20 percent) at a distant second."

Although it's not mentioned in the article, I guess it's a US study. The conclusion states that (1) these devices may be competing with more stationary entertainment devices for a user’s time, (2) the scope of gaming devices is changing to entertainment devices, (3) "„iPods/iPhones are being treated as entertainment devices. Why do I blog this? interesting evolution in the last few months wrt mobile entertainment. I also wonder about the range of applications, especially on the Nintendo DS as there are more and more cartridges which are not really games (such as Hello Kitty diary for example). The possibility to design non-games is more and more intriguing in this field.

Holding the wiimote

hold the wiimote #1 Interesting discussion yesterday at the game studio around the holding of the wiimote. Surely one the topic that emerged from the usability tests of wii games we conducted, especially with people who've NEVER touch a video game console. The first picture represents the regular wiimote holding scheme whereas the two other shows how a novice user held it when playing different mini-games.

hold the wiimote #2

hold the wiimote #3

Some of the issues the tests raised: How do we design applications for the B button in the previous cases? What about the 1 and 2? Can we use them in the interaction? Should the A-button be important so that the thumb or the second finger? Is the "plus" button the right one to break scenes? What about the cross? What's the role of the direction cross with these two ways of holding the wiimote?

Video games and its influence on the military industry

(via) In The Disruptive Potential of Game Technologies: Lessons Learned from its Impact on the Military Simulation Industry, Roger Smith discusses how computer games have a disruptive impact on military industry and suggest that these will disrupt other industries in the future. It basically tells the history of military simulations and how video-games' relationship to them, showing how game technologies rapidly moved into the industry from which they were originally created (military simulation). What happened is that new types of defense simulation companies "have emerged and do not attempt to re-create products from scratch, but instead seek out customers who require modifications to commercial tools with which they are proficient".

Why do I blog blog this? Personally, I am less interested in the "serious game" aspect of this (plus I don't like that term), but instead, by the conclusive sidebar of the paper, which is about how we can draw lessons for other industries. Some excerpts:

"Specific lessons that have been learned in the military simulation industry are:

  1. Not Good Enough. The game technologies often do not appear to be good enough for the core customer base of the industry. However, (...) game technologies have the power of Silicon Valley behind them and the potential to become more than good enough for core customers.
  2. Raising the Standard. The visual appeal and human usability of games is far beyond that of most industrial software applications. These features are very attractive to customers and enable vendors to sway customers to their products much more easily than is possible with the traditional software tools.
  3. Customer Pull. As customers become aware of game-based tools in their industry they pull on their current suppliers to offer similar products. If established companies ignore these requests it creates a disruptive opportunity for an upstart company that will satisfy these needs.
  4. Explore Applicability. Established players in other industries should explore the potential improvements that game technology offers for their customers.
  5. Build Capabilities. If game technologies are entering an industry, leaders must determine whether to create their own in-house expertise or develop relationships with smaller game technology studios. There are a number of game studios that have been only marginally successful in selling games for entertainment, but who possess the skills necessary to apply these technologies to a new industry."

Some more general lessons about innovation and how people from the military industry sees the video-game business.

Evolution of game controllers

Recently, I've been involved in a research project about game controllers, comparing different peripheral (gestural or not). This led me to investigate the evolution of game controller over time, a topic already addressed by others. For instance, Damien Lopez made this insightful mapping (.pdf) for both consoles and portable systems:

Game controller 1

Game controller 2

Lopez describes this map as a "a collection of small multiples of game controllers of the main gaming systems from the past 25 years (..,) normalized, and the hands are all approximately the same size as each other, and thus the controllers all to scale". His point was "to show the progression of controller design throughout the last quarter-century. With the introduction of the Nintendo Entertainment System, no more number pads were used on game controllers from that point on".

On Sock Master, there is also a tree-based representation that tries to connect all the current console controllers with their predecessors. What is interesting here is the notion of diachronic evolution as well as the connection between different "families". Game controller 3

Why do I blog this? working on the user experience of game controller for different research projects, this kind of representation are important as they map the existing peripherals as well as show how the possibilities evolved over time. It's overall interesting to note the relative stability in both portable and console shapes but the increasing complexity of controllers. Although sticks remains stable, the number of buttons increases. It would interesting to see how the user experience evolved over time too and see how it's related with the interface. I need to dig more these graphics and draw some implications about what that means.

Mobile Social Gaming

One of the domain I have been interested in the last few months is mobile on-line multi-player games. Having done research in pervasive/location-based games and knowing that this path was still a sort of "ubiquitous computing proximal future" for various reasons, I started exploring less advanced projects such as mobile multi-player on-line worlds/games such as Mini Friday or TibiaME. Although I was silent about it, this was one of the project I work on at the Media and Design Lab. Both the game and the mobile industry are also quiet about this vector, but even old news show that this field start getting some attention. There are indeed various opportunities in this area, depending on various axes/design choices:

  • Be synchronous like Tibia ME or the upcoming DofusPocket (Ankama - Kalmeo) or asynchronous (turn-based game) like Armada Kingdoms (by Bloomsix)
  • Stand-alone virtual worlds such as Mini Friday (from Sulake, who also runs Habbo Hotel) or cross-platforms such as The Violet Sector.
  • Offering of a complete game/social experience or only a subset: for instance it can be very well tbe the "mobile companion" to computer-based MMO like Ragnarok Mobile Mage or this mobile service called Level Up Mobile that allows to manage your account (balance inquiry, password, lock/unlock), get news and guild message exchange. A bit similar to what Rupture or Magelo are doing except that it would be a mobile version.

There's a lot that can be done in that last area, as described in the gamasutra news.

"There are also social networking opportunities in World of Warcraft that could be done on mobile. Text and voice chat are obvious candidates for mobile, allowing players to keep in touch with their guilds when they are away from their computers. Also, things like browseable profiles and screenshot albums could be easily implemented. RSS-like news feeds by mobile could provide players with info on who leveled up or who joined a guild. Players might enjoy rating content that could be viewed on mobile such as rating quests or avatar appearance. Once the technology improves, Youtube style videos of World of Warcraft activities could appear on mobile. “It’s the perfect activity for mobile because it can take up as much or as little of the player’s time as desired,” Roy said."

That said, this wide spectrum of opportunity is not the only solution why I am interested in that. Being a user experience researcher, my focus is on how people use certain technologies (such as urban technologies, location-based services, games). Mobile on-line multi-user games interest me because I see them as interesting platform to study the hybridization of the digital and the physical, especially in contexts such as contemporary cities. Where do people play these games? How do that influence what they're doing after/before/during playing them? The whole interlinkages between the digital activities+context and the physical activities+context was the purpose of my work as EPFL last year. This is another vector than the one we're exploring with Julian since physicality, geolocation and motion is not taken account. In this case, I am interested in pure raw mobile applications deployed on phones that are available on the market.

So, to some extent, as in the CatchBob project, I find interesting to employ mobile social games as platform to explore broader issues, especially the ones related to mobile user experience and what are the relationships between contemporary cities and these games. More about this topic later.

Near future of pervasive games at USC

This afternoon, I was invited by Julian to give an informal talk at USC in his "experimental game topics" course. I showed a bunch of projects from others that I find interesting and it triggers a discussion about the near future of mobile/pervasive games, what are the main factors, the limits, the "pain factors" etc. Slides can be downloaded here (pdf, 8Mb). It's just a compilation of various projects to reflect on different topics.

Beyond Usability: Exploring Distributed Play

[Last year, I wrote a paper for a workshop at a human-computer interaction conference about the user experience of video games, actually it briefly presents the work I am doing with game companies. The paper was not accepted and I thought it would be pertinent to leave it online anyway] Introduction Video game companies have now integrated the need to deploy user-centered design and evaluation methods to enhance players experiences. This has led them to hire cognitive psychology researchers, human-computer interface specialists, develop in-house usability labs or subcontract tests and research to companies or academic labs. Although, very often, methods has been directly translated form classic HCI and usability, this game experience analysis started to gain weights through publications. This situation acknowledges the importance of setting a proper method for user-centered game design, as opposed to the one applied for “productivity applications” or web services. The Microsoft Game User Research Group for example has been very productive on that line of research (see for example [5]) with detailed methods such as usability tests, Rapid Iterative Test and Evaluation [4] or consumer playtests [1]. Usability test is definitely the most common method currently given its relevance to identify interfaces flaws as well as factors that lower the fun to play through behavioral analysis.

That said, most of the methods deployed by the industry seem to rely heavily on quantitative and experimental paradigms inherited from the cognitive sciences tradition in human-computer interaction (see [2]). Studies are often conducted in corporate laboratory settings in which myriads of players come visit and spend hours playing new products. Survey, ratings, logfile analysis, brief interviews (and sometimes experimental studies) are employed to apprehend users’ experiences and implications for game or level designers are fed back into game development processes.

While these approaches proves to be fruitful (as reported by the aforementioned papers which describe some case studies), this situation only accounts for a limited portion of what HCI and user-centered design could bring to table in terms of game user research. Too often, the “almost-clinical” laboratory usability test is deployed without any further thoughts regarding how players might experience the product “in the wild”. For example, this kind of studies does not take into account how the activity of gaming is organized, and how the physical and social context can be important to support playful activities.

What we propose is to step back for a while and consider a complementary approach to gain a more holistic view of how a game product is experienced. To do so, we will describe two examples from our research carried out in partnership with a game studio.

Examples from field studies

Our first example depicted on Figure 1 shows the console of an informant: a Nintendo DS with a post-it that says “Flea market on Saturday” and an exclamation mark. The player of “Animal Crossing” indeed left this as a reminder that two days ahead, there would be a flea market in the digital environment. This is important in the context of that game because it will allow him to sell digital items to non-playable characters in the game.

Flea Market on saturday

This post-it is only an example among numerous uses of external resources to complement or help the gameplay. Player-created maps of digital environments xeroxed and exchanged in schools in the nineties is another example of such behavior. Magazines, books and digital environment maps are also prominent examples of that phenomenon, which eventually leads to business opportunities. Some video game editors indeed start publishing material (books, maps, cards) and try to connect it to the game design (by allowing secret game challenges through elements disseminated in comics for example).

Figure 2 shows another example that highlights the social character of play. This group of Japanese kids is participating the game experience, although there is only one child holding a portable console. The picture represented here is only one example of collective play along many that we encountered, both in mobile of fixed settings. They indicate that playing a video-game is much more than holding an input controller since participants (rather than “The Player”) have different roles ranging from giving advices, scanning the digital environment to find cues, discussing previous encounters with NPCs or controlling the game character.

Another intriguing results from a study about Animal Crossing on the Nintendo DS has revealed that some players share the game and the portable console with others. An adult described how he played with his kid asynchronously: he hides messages and objects in certain places and his son locates them, displace them and eventually hide others. The result of this is the creation of a circular form of game-play that emerged from the players’ shared practice of a single console.

Conclusion

Although this looks very basic and obvious, these three examples correspond to two ways to frame cognition and problem solving: “Distributed Cognition” [3] and “Situated Action” [6]. While the former stresses that cognition is distributed the objects, individuals, and tools in our environment, Situated Action emphasizes the interrelationship between problem solving and its context of performance, mostly social. The important lesson here is that problem solving, such as interacting with a video-game is not confined to the individual but is both influenced and permitted by external factors such as other partners (playing or not as we have seen) or artifacts such as paper, pens, post-its, guidebooks, etc. Whereas usability testing relates to more individual model of cognition, Situated Action or Distributed Cognition imply that exploring and describing the context of play is of crux importance to fully grasp the user experience of games. Employing ethnographic methodologies, as proposed by these two Cognitive Sciences frameworks, can fulfill such goal by focusing on a qualitative examination of human behavior. It is however important to highlight the fact that investigating how, where and with whom people play is not meant to replace more conventional test. Rather, one can see this as a complement to understand phenomenon such as the discontinuity of gaming or the use of external resources while playing.

One of the reasons why this approach can be valuable is that results drawn from ethnographic research of gaming can be relevant to find unarticulated opportunities. For example, by explicitly requiring the use of external resource or the possibility to have challenges designed for multiple players as shown in the Animal Crossing example we described.

In the end, what this article stressed is that playing video-games is a broad experience which can be influenced by lots of factors that could be documented. And this material is worthwhile to design a more holistic vision of a product.

References

[1] Davis, J., Steury, K., & Pagulayan, R. A survey method for assessing perceptions of a game: The consumer playtest in game design. Game Studies: the International Journal of Computer Game Research, 5(1) (2005). [2] Fulton, B. (2002). Beyond Psychological Theory: Getting Data that Improve Games. Game Developer's Conference 2002 Proceedings, San Jose CA, March 2002. Available at: http://www.gamasutra.com/gdc2002/features/fulton/fulton_01.htm [3] Hutchins, E. (1995). Cognition in the Wild, MIT Press. [4] Medlock, M. C., Wixon, D., Terrano, M., Romero, R., Fulton, B. (2002). Using the RITE Method to improve products: a definition and a case study. Usability Professionals Association, Orlando FL July (2002). Available at: http://download.microsoft.com/download/5/c/c/5cc406a0-0f87-4b94-bf80-dbc707db4fe1/mgsut_MWTRF02.doc.doc [5] Pagulayan, R. J., Keeker, K., Wixon, D., Romero, R., & Fuller, T. User-centered design in games. In J. Jacko and A. Sears (Eds.), Handbook for Human-Computer Interaction in Interactive Systems, pp.883-906. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates (2002). [6] Suchman, L.A. (1987). Plans and Situated Actions: The Problem of Human-Machine Communication. Cambridge: Cambridge Press.

[Now it's also interesting to add a short note about WHY the paper has not been accepted The first reviewer was unhappy by the fact that many ethnographies of game-playing have been published. Although this is entirely true in academia, it's definitely not the case in the industry (where ethnography is seldom employed in playtests). And my mistake may have been that I frame the paper in an game industry perspective, using the literature about gaming usability. The second reviewer wanted a more extensive description of a field study and less a scratch-the-surface approach that I adopted. My problem of course is that it's always difficult to describe results more deeply because most of the data are confidential... This is why I stayed at a general level]

50 game design advances according to Ernest Adams

A very comprehensive article by Ernest Adams in BW about the "50 Greatest Game Innovations". The underlying argument there is how video games are a hotbed for innovation (in other domains than the gaming field). I won't enter into much details about every single design advances presented there, stating only that they cover the following:

"GAMEPLAY INNOVATIONS: By gameplay I mean the challenges that the game poses to the player, and the actions that the player may take to meet the challenges. The vast majority of these actions are obvious: jumping, steering, fighting, building, trading and so on. But some challenges and actions distinctly advanced the state of the art, and provided new ways for us to play.

INPUT INNOVATIONS: Interactivity is the essence of gaming, and in a videogame, some device has to translate the player's intentions into action. We've always had buttons, knobs (aka spinners or paddles), joysticks, sliders, triggers, steering wheels and pedals. But recently our options for input devices have exploded, and a good designer gives careful thought to them before choosing an approach to use.

PRESENTATIONAL INNOVATIONS: Innovations in what the player sees and hears may depend heavily on technological advances, but I still consider them design innovations as well, features the designer can choose to use in their game—or not. I take static and scrolling 2D screens for granted; they already existed in mechanical coin-ops.

GENRES: We borrowed many videogame genres from other game forms, but a few genres would not have been possible before the invention of the computer, and represent real design innovation.

PLAY STYLES: Different ways that people play, and how designers facilitate them."

Why do I blog this? A must read even though it's only a selection among other possibilities

Research potential of virtual worlds: what environment for what methodology?

(Cross-posted at Terra Nova) Science Mag has an article entitled "The Scientific Research Potential of Virtual Worlds" by William Sims Bainbridge which gives a pretty good overview of how games such as MMO have a "great potential as sites for research in the social, behavioral, and economic sciences, as well as in human-centered computer science.

Although the examples are well-known now, what is interesting in this article is the emphasis on the environment and methodological choices: which environment can be tight to what methodologies as described in the following excerpt:

"In terms of scientific research methodologies, one can do interviews and ethnographic research in both environments, but other methods would work better in one than the other. SL is especially well designed to mount formal experiments in social psychology or cognitive science, because the researcher can construct a facility comparable to a real-world laboratory and recruit research subjects. WoW may be better for nonintrusive statistical methodologies examining social networks and economic systems, because it naturally generates a vast trove of diverse but standardized data about social and economic interactions. Both allow users to create new software modules to extract data. (...) WoW is a very conducive environment for quantitative research because it encourages individuals to write "mod" or "add-on" programs, and scientists can use some existing software as research tools or write their own. These range all the way from very simple sequences of character behaviors constructed using macros built into the WoW user interface to long programs written in the Lua language. For example, one widely used program called Auctioneer analyzes prices on the WoW virtual item auction system, and CensusPlus tallies all the players currently online by several characteristics (...) Other fields of computer and information science that may use virtual worlds as laboratories include human/computer interaction (HCI), where "machinima" videos shot in virtual worlds may be used to develop prototypes of a wide range of systems and new methods of information visualization"

Although I am not a great fan of SL, it's very rare to see a discussion about the merits of certain platform to conduct X and Y type of research (also crossed with the disciplines). I'd be happy to know more about the use of other platforms; for example I've seen psychological studies about immersion using car games. What FPS and RTS can be useful for? What about mini-games? Is tangible interaction a good model for certain phenomena?

The article continues by addressing how different disciplines may find virtual worlds worthwhile to explore as research platforms (for example how political sciences may find the experimental method in small laboratory studies). The advantages the author points out ranges from the easiness to recruit participants, the availability of scripting and graphic tools, the motivation factor.

To some extent, the article has a great literature review of existing work (close to the Terra Nova community!) about this topic but I am a bit less optimistic than the author ("Virtual worlds may help unify some branches of the social sciences and give them greater scientific rigor. "). Anyhow, virtual environments at least emable people to talk about a common object and make comparisons.