Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Prince of Persia reference video

Jordan Mechner has been posting his development journals from the original Prince of Persia -- from twenty-three years ago.

Recently he put up the video he shot as an animation reference for the Prince's moves. It's his brother David running, jumping, and climbing around a parking lot. If you've ever played the game, you will bounce straight up in the air and shout "That's it! That's exactly it!"

Watch the Prince of Persia reference video.

But it's also worth browsing through Mechner's other entries (there aren't too many). This early comment is both delightful and a little heartbreaking:

And... the games business is drying up. Karateka may make me as little as $75,000 all told, and it’s at the top of the charts. There’s no guarantee the new game will be as successful. Or that there will even be a computer games market a couple of years from now. (July 5, 1985)

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Alternate reality fiction

I have not blogged about Shadow Unit, because this is the Gameshelf, and Shadow Unit is not a game. I love Shadow Unit. It's a collaborative storytelling project by four well-known fantasy authors. You might call it a series of short stories about a mutant-hunting FBI team. You'd be closer if you called it a prose work with the structure of an episodic TV series. It's great writing; X-Files with human beings instead of Hollywood/TV heroes. It isn't a game.

I say that because I didn't do anything; I read the episodes as they were posted. (And I dropped some cash in the hat.) No interactivity, no game. Easy distinction, right?

But would Elizabeth Bear, Will Shetterly, Sarah Monette, and Emma Bull agree with that? Do they feel like they're playing a game? I'll ask around. But let's stay outside the circle of creators for now.

Or... maybe not. Shadow Unit has imported some of the aspects of an ARG, an alternate reality game. Supporting web sites pop up. Characters in the story have ongoing Livejournals.

You can comment in these journals. (As long as you don't break the fourth wall.) People do. Real people have long conversations with fictional people. They trade recipes and favorite TV shows.

Who's playing now?

Let me reach back to my post about Alternity, the Livejournal-mediated Harry Potter RPG that started recently. I called that a "game", even though it's got a bounded circle of creators and no ARG elements. Why was that a game? For one thing, the circle is larger -- twenty-ish? But mostly, I was thinking of the game model. You and your friends could set up your own game of "that thing", with your own scenario. "That thing" is fairly structured; it has rules ("journal posts only", the 15-minute correction rule, etc). The creators are continually making posts in these constrained ways. Whereas Shadow Unit's "thing" is both more nebulous and more generic: traditional short stories appear on a web site.

But then, the Livejournals have a rule... Okay, I'm constructing a difference out of degrees. Never mind.

A new one is launching tomorrow: Continuous Coast. (Or is it called "Mediators"? These alternate reality thingies don't name themselves!)

You can read a slideshow about this thing, by creators Reesa Brown and Kit O'Connell. They presented this at Arse Elektronika 2008. They're working with fantasy author Steven Brust, plus a cast of thousands, on a... a...

I have no idea. We'll find out more on October 9th, or so I hear.

It has some web sites and blogs, as I linked above. It has a Twitter feed. But of course that's not the Twitter feed of the project. It's the Twitter feed of the Mediators, the ?police ?steering committee ?resident psychiatrists of a city that is clearly not on Earth, and perhaps not in our universe...

So is this a game? It is impossible to describe without the perspective of ARGs. Continuous Coast is an alternate-reality presentation, in the sense of ARGs. ARGs are games. Continuous Coast is not -- by the early descriptions -- a MMO puzzle-quest in the sense of I Love Bees. It is described as interactive, in that the circle is open. Everything is Creative-Commons licensed, and the creators invite everyone to play in the sandbox.

"Play" invites "game", doesn't it?

Let me fling out some terminology. Shadow Unit and Continuous Coast are ARFs: alternate reality fiction. "Alternate reality", again, in the ARG sense: that which spills out from the page and mixes and blurs into our reality. "This is not fiction." Web sites, stories, art, all lived in-character.

(No relation here to "alternate history", the subgenre of science fiction that deals with what-if divergences of history. Sorry about that confusion. "Enhanced reality" and "ERGs" might have been a better term, back when the Beast and the Bees came along; but that spaceship has sailed.)

I'm not trying to distinguish ARFs from games, in the broad sense. I'm just trying to distinguish it from the well-described category of ARGs. I don't care whether ARF is a "game" -- doesn't matter, it is play. People will interact to shape an experience that comes as much from them as from the original designers.

Really, I want to drop a different division down the cloud, and say that an ARG is alternate reality interactive fiction -- the subset of ARFs which involve specific challenges for the players to defeat. We could even distinguish between multi-player ARIF and solo ARIF: imagine a game that's spread across web sites and in-character blogs, but which is sized for a single player to work through without help. (I don't know any examples of this, but I want to avoid wiring in assumptions.)

Or maybe that's silly terminology, because it's all "interactive", ARFs and ARGs and journal games and the lot. We take for granted that alternate-reality presentations are participatory. The whole point of bleeding into your reality, right, is that you live in your reality. It wouldn't be AR if you weren't involved.

Or, as Brown and O'Connell write: "21st-century storytelling blurs the line between canon and fanon."

Damn. Now I want to go back and rebuild my lamented Myst Online from scratch, using these ideas. I knew they were missing something...

Ads in flash games

I play a lot of teeny little Flash games. These games are free and ad-supported. Therefore, they recapitulate the entire history of Web advertising, and we could repeat it right down the line in the comments, and maybe we will. I will try to short-circuit it with the following assertions. (Expletives have been BSGified for public consumption, but really, I wrote this with a lot of swears.)

  • People frakking hate web ads. They hate banner ads, they hate pop-up ads, they hate them all. More people hate them with silent grumbling than by jumping up and down screaming "feldercarb!" but the hate is there.

  • This is because they are noisy, ugly visual pollution which exist to drag your attention away from what you care about.

  • Ad companies politely pretend this hate does not exist. They pretend they are presenting valuable relevant content in parallel with your web-browsing experience. This is a load of bat-dren, but it lets them sleep at night.

  • Some people use ad blockers and such. This makes ad companies weep, and then you get the whole "You're killing the Web 2.0 economy! You are destroying the sites that you visit!" argument. This is right up there with the "Software piracy costs 250 billion dollars a year!" argument: there is a real concern there, but it is comprehensively snowed under by phony hysteria, which is to say, an ocean of decaying dingo's kidneys.

  • The reason this is hysteria is that, even without in-browser ad blockers, people grow ad blockers in their brains very quickly. Ad companies sit around discussing "dwell time" and "optimal ad positioning" as if they weren't staring at the proof that everybody hates them, and discussing their strategies for making everybody suffer more by breaking their brains.

  • Therefore, speaking as a consumer, I avoid lots of ads, and you can't make me feel guilty about it. No, not even if you're the game designer who makes money off the ads. I love game designers, you're awesome, kid, now shut up.

How does this apply to Flash games? Well, we have lived through the following stages of the war:
  • A game appears on a web page
  • A game appears on a web page with ads around it
  • An ad appears on a web page, and then turns into a game
  • ...and then ads appear inside the game itself (between games, or even between levels)

We hit stage 3 a couple of years ago -- managed by ad companies like Mochiads. We are just now hitting the point of stage 4.

Rather than trying to make a moral or aesthetic argument about this progression, I will describe my rules for dealing with it.

  • When I fire up a web page with a game, if I see a splash-page ad, I'm going to bury the window and wait for it to finish loading. I saw your ad, now I'm doing other stuff. I'll be back later. Sorry!

  • If you show a loading progress bar with an ad above it, I understand. I'm not watching it load with glazed consumer eyes, but I get that you're making use of dead space.

  • If you show a falsified loading progress bar, which ticks up for 20 seconds even after the game has finished loading, you're a frakking liar. This is not a moral argument about your ad, this is a moral argument about you. "You" meaning Mochiads. You're dishonest sleazeballs when you do this. Sorry!

  • The only thing that blinks on my screen is the game I'm playing. Animation is an emergency signal. Misuse it and I'll resize the window to cut your ad right the frell off. Sorry!

  • Honestly, a row of brightly-colored, high-contrast ads is pretty damn noisy even if they're not animated. I'll trim them off too. There's a reason that Google Ads are homogenous in style and blend with the overall page: it makes the page suck less.

  • You can put an ad on the "click to start game" screen.

  • Once I click to start the game, ad time is over. I'm playing a game now. The next ad I see is the end of the game. I mean that literally: the next time I see an ad, I shout "game over!" and close the window. No, I am not playing again. You lost fired me.

  • If you can't make a living this way, I'll play other people's games. I'm fine with that. Yes, I do design games for free.

  • Maybe someday ad technology will get so sophisticated that I can't play Flash games at all. Do you want to go there? No, don't worry -- I don't really expect it to happen. Web ad blockers seem to be in fine shape these days.

  • So, if you want to try to go there, you're frakked. One way or the other.

What does all of this boil down to? Seriously, this: web ads are an attention tax levied on the people who don't care about them very much. I care about them a lot, so I block a lot of ads (by various means). You cannot get me to start watching ads by making them more intrusive; you can only make me hate you more.

So back the hezmana off and be happy with the (large majority) of ad-viewers you've got now. Most people aren't juggling windows around to avoid your dren. You don't have to yotz up the game experience itself to make your garbage-spreading cash quota.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Steve Meretzky speaks in Boston tomorrow

This has been announced in many places around Boston, but just in case you missed it:

Infocom star Steve Meretzky (Planetfall, A Mind Forever Voyaging, Leather Goddesses of Phobos, Hitchhiker's Guide, Spellcasting 101/201/301, etc) will be speaking at MIT on Monday.
  • Monday, Oct 6, 6:00 pm
  • MIT, Stata Center, room 32-141

This lecture is part of Nick Montfort's Purple Blurb colloquium.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The library

They say you can blog about whatever you want, really. But I don't have a cat, and it's not Friday. So this is Irregular Holy Crap I Wish That Were My Life Wednedays.

Jay Walker's private library -- article by Steven Levy in Wired

The article is game-related only in that videogames, particularly adventure games, often have imposing libraries. Some of them even look this good. But in a game library, inevitably, there are only three or five books you can look at.

Just occasionally, reality is better.

I've been upgrading my own library, the past few days. But when I say "upgrading," I mean "I crammed in one more small bookshelf, plus a DVD rack, and then added a second lamp so that there'd be a little more light in the back." I didn't put in floating balconies and a Nuremberg Chronicle and a Sputnik. Nor is my apartment done up in a surprisingly harmonious mixture of wood inlay and fiber-optic glass.

Maybe next year.