The societal effects of cognitive technologies

Posted September 19, 2016 by Mike Sellers
Categories: AI, economics

In Malaysia, Uber is easily available. It’s inexpensive, safe, and a great experience all around. Unfortunately, taxi drivers there don’t take kindly to Uber drivers — a few yelled at one of the cars I was in while visiting last week, and one slammed his fist into the window by my head as we drove past. You might say their rage at this technology-driven change is palpable.
 
Okay, now magnify the situation many times over: what happens, societally, when a significant portion of our existing jobs just evaporate in the space of a few years — enough to take unemployment in the US from 5% to 12% in less than a decade? Keep in mind the unemployment rate peaked at 10% in 2009 after the global financial crisis, and could easily be right back up there in just a few years. According to a recent Forrester Report, this is what we’re facing due to increased automation and “cognitive technologies.”
 
In fact it’s sort of worse than just going from 5% to 12% unemployment. According to Forrester’s projections, 9% of jobs in 2025 will be new ones enabled by automation, which is great — but 16% of existing jobs will have vanished forever. It’s not difficult to imagine that this might create a lot of economic and social dislocation along the way. All the displaced taxi drivers, truck drivers, customer service personnel, store clerks, fast food servers, and others will have to do something to keep themselves and their families going, and telling them to go back to their local community college is really not going to cut it. As Andy Stern, former president of the Service Employees International Union put it, that advice is “probably five to ten years too late.” He goes on to say that as a society “we don’t really have a plan and we don’t appreciate how quickly the future is arriving.”
 
There is a saying often attributed to Winston Churchill that “Americans can be counted on to do the right thing after they have tried everything else.” It seems that right now we’re still madly trying “everything else.” Jobs already lost or that will be lost to automation and globalization are not going to be magically brought back by “building a wall” on our border with Mexico, nor by instituting draconian protectionist measures or anything other backward-looking solution. We have to look forward to try to figure out what a radically different future actually means for us as a society. Until we decide to do so — until we finally decide to knuckle down and do the right thing — it’s going to be a difficult, bumpy time for a whole lot of folks. What’s coming at us now is going to make 2009, and maybe even the 1930s, look easy. The question, as posed by Stern, is “what level of pain do people have to experience and what level of social unrest has to be created before the government acts?”

“What should game developers learn from Blizzard failing at Titan?”

Posted April 22, 2016 by Mike Sellers
Categories: game development, industry, MMOG, Uncategorized

Over on Quora I was asked to answer this question. Here’s what I wrote:

A few clear lessons come to mind:

  1. Most games fail. Having a team that is smart, passionate, talented, deeply experienced, and insanely well-funded doesn’t change the fact that your game is most likely to fail.

    Let that sink in for a moment.

    Not even having had an enormous success one time means you will be successful the next time. Hard as it is to say, if you’re lucky this happens before the game is released (or even announced!). The long droughts between successful games is part of the landscape of the games industry, and something almost everyone has to internalize.

  2. Failure is not permanent. The story of game development and the games industry is nothing if not one of re-invention. Developers, properties, technologies, and companies all re-create themselves every few years. You try something new, you fail, you try again. Just as success is not a given, neither is failure. You fail, you sit, you cry, you mourn, and then you get up and try the next thing. That’s been my experience in more than two decades in the games industry.

  3. Know who you are. While re-invention is pervasive, it’s also true that success breeds inertia: the longer your company is successful at doing what it does, the harder it is to change that course. Is your company about ground-breaking innovation, or about tweaking known formulas? Both can work. But culture is real. Cultural inertia is real.

    Here’s a story I don’t often tell too publicly: in 2002, I interviewed at Blizzard for the lead design position on this new game they had going, World of Warcraft. I had recently been the lead designer on three MMOs (Meridian 59, SimCity Online, and Ultima Online 2 — one out of three of which were released), along with leading the design on The Sims 2. I had a really terrific day talking with the team at Blizzard. But every time I said something like,”oh that’s cool, and you could really take this in a new direction,” the response was along the lines of, “well… we’re really not trying to reach too far with new things on this project.”

    At the end of the day I sat in a conference room while the managers conferred. While I did, it became really clear to me that this was a great team and a great company — and definitely not the job for me. I’ve spent my career trying (and very often failing) to do things that were really new, and that’s not what they were trying to do. So, when they came back in the room (I’m abashed to say I don’t recall now who it was I talking with), they very graciously said, “we like you, the team likes you, you have a great resume… but we just don’t think you’re the guy for the job.”

    I feel incredibly fortunate to have been able to interview for that position, and even more fortunate to have been able to respond, in that moment, “You’re right. This is a great project and team, and I’m not the guy to lead it. But I think I know who is.” I recommended Tom Chilton, a terrific designer who was on the team I had just left, and someone who was a classic fantasy MMO designer in his bones. Not too long after that he took the job, and is still at Blizzard doing great work.

    The point of all this is that at that time, Blizzard knew who they were and what they wanted. They had an established culture and they played into their strengths in phenomenal ways.

    But that strength also made it more difficult for them to in fact do something new, to make whatever it was that Titan would have become. I mourn with them a bit for what might have been, but I also celebrate their re-invention via Overwatch.

Is there another way?

Posted April 19, 2016 by Mike Sellers
Categories: corporate, game development, industry, practice

Game dev folks, I’d like your thoughts on this one: Michael Martinez, CEO of JuiceBox Games, wrote a smart and heart-felt mini post-mortem of his company, which is shutting down. In it he details the difficulties of running an effective game development business in today’s market. 

I don’t know Martinez, but I agree with most of what he says 100%. And of course I have immense empathy for him and his team, and the difficult decisions he’s had to make.

That said, I’m left with the nagging feeling that he (and many other smart people) have bought into the equation of “game dev success” that requires many millions of dollars of investment. JuiceBox had a $2.54M seed round, the kind of money which then requires hit games to sustain the business. This view is hardly new; it’s how people have been setting up businesses for a long time (and how I’ve set up some of mine in the past). However, it also leads to the kind of tunnel vision that makes the conclusion that “games are a hit-driven business,” inevitable. It’s the classic (if often self-defeating) “go big or go home” mentality that shoves aside all other possibilities. The thing is, I don’t think that conclusion is actually all that inevitable: we can do this differently, with less risk and more success.

Read the rest of this post »

Chefs, creativity, diversity, and our old friend risk

Posted September 13, 2015 by Mike Sellers
Categories: Uncategorized

I’m on the outbound leg of a trip from the US to Sweden for the Sweden Game Conference. On the plane from Chicago to Frankfurt I watched the movie “Chef” again. It’s a small but worthwhile movie directed by and starring Jon Favreau. He plays an accomplished chef who is sick and tired of having to cook the same old menu over and over again. He’s lorded over by his money-guy who just wants butts-in-seats and for the chef to give people the mainstream fare they want. This results in a disastrous review, and the chef eventually flips out and leaves. He then goes on a journey of self (and family) discovery, and ends up  opening a small food truck that gathers a big online following.

So you can see, this is really a post-Iron Man/Avengers movie about making movies. It suits the making of games equally well — with the exception of the “all’s well that ends well” ending that most movie and game creators don’t experience.

Which brings me to this article from the Guardian. I fully agree that our range of “acceptable” game genres has narrowed to the point that our diversity issues go far, far beyond “we don’t have enough women represented in games.”  The result of this is that I often don’t find much that’s really interesting to play — and those games that do catch my imagination (and dollars) are often the smaller indie efforts – FTL, Banished, Sunless Sea, Prune, and most recently Kings Quest, which at least feels like an indie effort (which is an accomplishment for the developers in today’s environment).

Like many others, I believe that we are far too insular in many parts of game development, and that increasing our underheard voices (including but not only women) has been a distressing serial failure. As the Guardian article points out though, our lack of diversity extends far beyond how women are represented in games or how many women we have in leadership positions in game development. This narrowing extends well into the kinds of games that get made — and thus the kinds of games that get played. The developers often serve a narrow audience, which further narrows the demographic pool of people who are interested in game development, which sets off a vicious cycle.

In the middle of this though is the problem that game developers, like anyone else, want to be paid for their work. Absent a wealthy and disinterested patron (please let me know if you find one of those), being paid requires running a business — and games are most definitely a business. Businesses are necessarily risk averse; the chances of complete failure are just too high otherwise. Creativity and diversity are inherently risky. Therefore most successful game companies will avoid creativity and diversity as much as possible, and in doing so end up contributing to the (at best) reluctant relationship with diversity, and the narrowing palette of game genres deemed worthy of consideration.

TL;DR: We want to be creative and diverse, but all the necessities of making games professionally are set against this.

What to do about this? I don’t know. I don’t have any answers.

I have a few hopes and hypotheses: for example that as we increase the diversity in the pool of developers, we’ll find new ways to make games without increasing our risk — and that maybe, just maybe, some of the wildly successful game companies we see today will look past their IPO or current stock price (I can dream) and actually invest a certain amount of their healthy profits on on-going,long-term R&D. You know, the kinds of things that fail a lot, but eventually give us iPhones, self-driving cars, or the ability to choose from dozens of movies on a trans-Atlantic flight — the very kinds of investment most game companies have little interest in making.

Systems, game systems, and systemic games

Posted May 18, 2015 by Mike Sellers
Categories: systems design

Tags: ,

Systems are a big deal — they’re much more pervasive and important than games. But, for reasons I’ll get to later, I believe that games, and game design in particular, are a uniquely effective avenue for understanding what systems are and why they’re important.

A full discussion of what systems are is beyond the scope of one blog post. But I want to lay out some basics as the foundation for some later posts. This may be a bit abstract at first, but I’ll bring it back to games in a way that I believe illuminates important parts of game design.

All systems have a few things in common: a system is made of parts that interact to form a purposeful whole. There’s a lot packed in there, so let’s take that bit by bit.

Each ‘part’ in a system can be thought of an object in software terms, with its own state (defined by attributes) and behavior. Importantly, this definition is recursive: each part is itself a whole, a sub-system, with its own internal workings: a part’s attributes are themselves objects with their own states, attributes, and behaviors. This recursive nature is vital to understand and can also be a little dizzying. We often want to cling to (or design to!) a single level of interactions without any additional structure. This leads to a poor understanding of systems and how the world works, and to shallow, lackluster gameplay. In terms of thinking about systems, just remember that whenever you’re looking at a system, there are parts within it to be unpacked — and the system is itself just a part of a larger system.

The behavior of an object in a system may change its own state, and it may communicate with other objects, potentially changing their state and behavior. This communication is the interaction between parts mentioned above. While objects interact, not all objects in a system interact equally often. As is often seen in any network, there are dense interactions between some objects, and far fewer between others. This has the effect of forming hierarchies: dense connections of interactions between one set of objects creates, implicitly or explicitly, a boundary that defines a super-object at the next level up in the hierarchy.

The result of this is that two or more sub-systems (with their own internal sub-systems) interact in ways that create a holistic system and drive the whole system forward with purposeful behavior. “Forward” might be a bacterium traveling along a sugar gradient, a football team traveling down-field, a school of fish evading a predator, or a game player working toward domination of a game world. In each of those, the “system” is a complex whole made up of parts acting together: the bacterium, the football team, the school of fish, and the combination of game and player.

That last example brings up an important point: while we often talk about combat systems, skill systems, etc., in games, we have to remember that the overall system that creates the experience of playing a game involves at least two important sub-systems: the game, and the player (or players!). Each is a complex sub-system with its own internal objects, states, and behaviors; and each interacts with the other to create the overall system of “the game being played.” The game systems are sub-systems within the game that interact together and with the player as the game is played.

This brings us to the last part of the definition I gave above, that of “a purposeful whole.” Systems are often spoken of as having a purpose or teleology: fish avoiding a predator, a football team moving the ball downfield, etc. In a similar way, games are designed to create a particular kind of experience through the use of their internal sub-systems, but it is the system overall, the combination of game and player, that bring that experience to life. That experience is the purpose, the meaning, of any game.

So what is a game system? And how does this relate to what we might call systemic games?

Here I’m going to turn to the MDA framework (or alternatively, its closely parallel cousin the Function-Behavior-Structure ontological framework) as scaffolding for talking about game systems.

In these terms, the mechanics (or structure) of a game system are its objects and their attributes. These are, for example, the pieces on the chessboard or the weapons in an RPG and, just as important, their current state (location on the board, amount of durability) and their behavior (how each chess piece moves, or how a rapier, longbow, or broadsword attack).

The dynamics or behavior of a game system are the events and actions that emerge as the result of game-based objects interacting (though remember that dynamics at one level create the mechanics of the aggregated parts at the next system-level up). As one example, “dribbling” was not found in the original rules of basketball, and didn’t appear as an acknowledged part of the game until several years after its introduction. Players could pass the ball to others to move it down court, and they eventually discovered they could also pass the ball to themselves by bouncing it on the floor as they advanced, passing it back to their own hand. Dribbling is a dynamic behavior that emerges from the mechanics in the stated rules of the game. Creating similar dynamics, as by combining the roles of tank, DPS, and healer characters in many MMOs, is an important part of game systems design. If the game objects don’t create any new, significant combined effects — if each object works pretty much on its own with little value gained by interacting with others — then the game system (if it’s a system at all!) is not likely to engage players for long.

Finally, the aesthetics or function of a system refer to the system’s purpose, or in game terms, the desired experience for the players: the game may engender feelings of achievement, fast-paced action, of hypnotic flow, terror, love, companionship, loss, wonder, etc. This experience requires the interactions of multiple game sub-system and the game and player as sub-systems within an overall system of the game experience.

In these terms then, a game system has well-defined objects with their own (typically recursively defined) attributes, state, and behaviors. Those objects have to interact in ways sufficient to create new aggregate behaviors (the dynamics) that support the creation of a particular game experience. The object interactions aren’t random; they’re carefully constructed to create dependencies between the objects in ways that evoke meaningful dynamics in their combined use. If an object isn’t used in combination with others; or if a mechanic doesn’t support some larger-scope game behavior; or if the in-game behaviors don’t create a cohesive experience for the player — then your system is failing. It lacks purpose (aka teleology, function, aesthetic), and you need to work on the pieces that make it up and how they interact.

It’s worth noting that it can be incredibly difficult to keep this all in your head (or even in your design docs!) at the same time — being able to go from “we have these mechanics to create these dynamics in support of this player experience” taxes the abilities of almost any designer. In my experience, different designers gravitate toward one part of that — usually mechanics or aesthetics — at the expense of others. Some designers are all about the “nouns and verbs” of a design, but don’t really have a solid, intuitive feeling for what kind of game experience the nouns and verbs will create. Others know exactly the feeling, the experience, they want to devise, but are fuzzy on exactly what that means in terms of the specific underlying mechanics that will get them there.

The necessity of being a game designer who can span this range was summed up nicely by Paul Stephanouk (@gamegeek) who said that a systems designer should be able “to turn a game into a spreadsheet and a spreadsheet into a game.”

Okay, given all that, what about systemic games? These are games that depend on their internal sub-systems to generate repeatable, engaging gameplay for the player(s). The most common of these currently are those often called “roguelikes” due to the fact that they procedurally re-generate the game world each time, providing at least some amount of novelty and engagement.

Compare that with other games (often high-end AAA console games) that depend on carefully crafted, often beautiful, and generally expensive set piece levels, characters, cut-scenes, and/or scnearios to create gameplay. These present the same gameplay the to the player each time, with at most minor variations in play. There may be a “combat system” for example, but this often isn’t really much of a system: there’s one sniper rifle that beats the others, one shotgun to use close, a machine gun that does lots of damage, etc. In many role-playing games, players quickly gravitate toward the one best “character build” for making the most effective tank, DPS, healer, etc. And in many strategy games there are at most two or three well-honed ways of playing to win, and all others are doomed to failure. In games designed like this there are game objects but few interactions that support different and effective strategies for playing the game. There are choices for the player, but they quickly separate into “effective” and “ineffective,” with the latter leaving the player frustrated (why have a choice in the game if it only leads to sub-optimal gameplay?). Or there might be endless combinations of objects (as in Borderlands’ or Diablo’s weapons), but these only sometimes create interesting (game-relevant) dynamics, as the interactions between random weapons-parts are too broad and not systemically deep.

Another example that I think sometimes trips up game designers are designer-systems that don’t result in game-systems. For example, World of Warcraft has a complicated and effective quest-creation system — if you’re one of the designers. If you’re a player, the result is much like the set pieces described above: the same quests always contain to the same obstacles and rewards, and lead to the same follow-on quests. As a player these are great for awhile, until you realize that at level 90 you’re still doing essentially the same thing you did at level 1, but the rats you have to fight to bring back ten of their tails are just bigger and meaner. There is a system in there for the designers that helps them create a complicated (but not complex) network of quests. For the players, there are no quest dynamics, as the interactions are all frozen at design time. There are pre-defined quest lines, but no interactive quest system.

Systemic games, by contrast, rely on interactions between game objects, from the setting to available weapons or tools. These are generated new each time the game is played based on underlying algorithms and systemic interactions. This necessarily means the game designers can’t depend on expensive, static set pieces, and so must lean more heavily on the dynamics created by the interactions between game objects and their mechanics.  It also means the designers have to create their actual game system — the system that, via its sub-systems, creates the game-to-be-played each time — in such a way that it will provide both systemic variability and maintain a satisfying desired aesthetic each time.

As difficult as this is, when it works, it works extremely well, creating highly replayable games with great longevity. That leads us to the concept of game depth — but that will have to wait for another (hopefully shorter!) post.

What Makes Game Design Unique?

Posted May 1, 2015 by Mike Sellers
Categories: game design, theory

Tags: , ,

I want to test a pair of assertions: I’ve said for a long time that there are two main things that make games different from anything else that’s “designed.”

The first is that no one has to play a game.

The second is that unlike any other device or software, games are entirely autotelic: the goal of a game is the goal set within the game (or within the player’s head). Games don’t exist to extend, assist, or support some external goal.

Those may not seem like much, but they create conditions that set games wholly apart from any other kind of human creation, and game design apart from any other kind of design. I think this leads in useful directions, but first I want to explore and test these assertions.

First, no one has to play a game. By contrast, if your company adopts new software for accounting or travel, you pretty much have to use it. If your bank changes how their ATMs work, you’re going to get used to it (or switch banks). But with a game, if you don’t like it or don’t get it, you can drop it — the game is entirely optional.

This means that game designers are constantly on the knife-edge in ways that other designers aren’t. Games have to attract a potential player’s attention. They have to draw the player in, help them build a mental model of what the game presents, and make that engaging enough that the player will stick with it and want to put in the energy needed to gain some level of mastery. This means that games are under immense pressure to evolve as fast as possible. There are always other games (now, hundreds of new ones appearing every day for mobile devices) that players can turn to, aside from anything in the player’s life that they have to do.

As a result, game designers spend a lot of time playing games designed by others to learn from them and apply their lessons to their own games. It’s no wonder that games change so rapidly and continuously, or that they consistently lead other forms of technology in the use of graphics, hardware, engagement, narrative, and interaction design.

The second point may be even more important: games are autotelic. Spreadsheets and word processors exist to support an external goal; so do paint programs, flight and process control software, etc. Even in the physical world, hammers, saws, drills, backhoes, scalpels, door handles and everything else you interact with on a daily basis that has been designed exists to further some goal that is external to the artifact themselves. Art, in the sense of paintings, literature, and sculpture, are, like games, concerned only with the goal that the artist sets for them. But unlike games they stand on their own; they are not truly interactive (a statement some will take issue with, but this is a different and longer argument). An artwork may engage someone mentally and emotionally, but it does not create a set of goals and tasks for the viewer. Since only games are both autotelic and interactive, only they enable the player to fulfill some set of goals, changing as the player changes, continually leading them to new internally defined goals.

In the realm of software in particular, only games (and toy-like games in which the player sets their own goals) escape serving some external and pre-existing set of goals and tasks. As a result, there is no “task analysis” that can yield a set of requirements for a game; part of the game designer’s job is to create the player’s tasks and goals out of thin air. Sometimes these may refer to some approximation of the real world (as in a flight simulator), but in some of the most charming examples they have only a tenuous connection to anything like our world, as in Ida’s curious journey in Monument Valley.

If these assertions are accurate, they have huge consequences for how we think about and practice game design, and for the place of game design in the overall sphere of design as practice and as a way of thinking. Games may, I believe, provide us a window into a kind of pure design, unencumbered by pre-defined external goals and tasks. If so, they also illuminate some important aspects of design and how we structure our thinking far beyond games and about the world in general. This is a point I’ll pick up later.

What do you think? Are these assertions accurate? Are there examples of non-game artifacts that are optional and autotelic? Are there other important differences between games and non-game artifacts, or between game design and other kinds of design? Or, are these statements correct as far as they go, but they miss something essential?

I look forward to hearing others’ thoughts on this.

Artisanal Game Development

Posted April 28, 2015 by Mike Sellers
Categories: game development

Tags:

“Tabletop games are to computer games as plays are to movies.”

This is something I’ve been saying for awhile, with an echo of Terrance Mann’s “movies will make you famous; television will make you rich; but theatre will make you good.” For a game designer, I’m increasingly convinced that there are few ways to better hone design skills than by creating tabletop games. When the only computer available is in the players’ heads, this restricts how much you can hide bad game design behind glitzy graphics or mountains of bookkeeping.

A couple of weekends ago I spent an incredibly enjoyable, exhausting, and enlightening time at Protospiel in Milwaukee WI. This was a gathering of fifty or so game designers and playtesters. I tested my in-process game a couple of times and reaped a wealth of terrific feedback. Playtesting is almost always useful, but this was like tapping into some mainline of game design thought and knowledge.

I should say that I also played a bunch of others’ games. That’s the magic of Protospiel: almost everyone brought a game (or more than one) to test with others, and played others games in turn. The variety of games was huge, from a truly elegant Love Letter-like game (with even fewer cards and possibly more strategy) to an educational (but still fun) game about the invasion of mussels and algae in the great lakes, to games with seeds and zombies and prison breaks and a bunch of other stuff.

Few of those there were full-time game developers; most had day jobs unrelated to games. And yet the quality of games in development was what I would expect from a “professional” gathering. Moreover the dedication to making a good game was equally high, as was the ethos of giving constructive, insightful, egoless feedback to others. Each person I saw or overheard recognized the strengths of a given game along with its rough spots — and inherently the work it took to get the game to where it was.

This, I think, is what I would call artisanal game design. Games made with care, craft, and pride. And in physical, table-top form, and therefore forced into as much design elegance as possible. Many of these are games that the designers hope to sell, so this isn’t some anti-commercial endeavor. On the other hand, this is the furthest thing from being some slick start-up ploy to build and flip a company as fast as you can without real regard for the product you’re making.

I think this is a useful return to the roots of modern game development. I’m sure this is a highly effective way to hone skill in game design. Whether it’s a way that someone could build a career (or even a viable second income stream) remains to be seen.