Ask the Game

My co-founder (and chief creative genius) at Kineplay, Laddie Ervin, pointed out this today and it’s awesome — it’s Double Fine’s Tim Schafer in a very funny bit on pitching his new Kinect game Once Upon a Monster.

Laddie and I have been on both sides of the table over the years. I’ve spent a little more time on the pitch side while he’s been in the decision-maker’s chair more often. We agree that Tim’s video is hilarious — and not all that different from what really happens. We’ve seen plenty of executives act like “cookie monsters” with millions of cookies at their disposal, and there is no shortage of “monster ideas” that can eat through them faster than milk can sogify ’em (in the case of Tim’s new game, it’ll be money well spent — the game looks great!).

Funding decisions, especially in traditional gaming but almost as common in non-traditional gaming, are far more random than what most people realize. Because it’s a creative business, many managers think they’re super-creative and tuned-in, but when it comes to a great game idea, their judgement is extremely hit-and-miss. Why wouldn’t it be? They spend their time managing, not making.

Likewise, developers often think they have the Next Big Game and stubbornly resist changes to their vision. Or worse, they have no vision and will do whatever it takes to get the gig. In both cases their interests aren’t going to align well with funding expectations.

What works best is when the funding monster and the maker monster agree on the initial nugget of a game idea, then hold themselves accountable to it — fill out the design by asking the game. Objectify the idea and ask it about story, art design, scale, mechanics — the exercise is subtle but important. Good fiction writers will tell you that they often see themselves as reporters who tell the story, not creators. This perspective takes the pressure off to “be creative” and especially for a complex and expensive project like a game, it provides a safety net for expression.

Things That Persist, Persist

“Things that persist, persist; things that don’t, don’t.” Steve Grand

Southern Oregon is a beautiful area of the country noted for its granite mountains, verdant crests and sloping highlands to the east, huge forests of pines to the west, and a diverse array of wildlife. The area is perfect for trail running.

While spur-of-the-moment exploration runs are fun, greater challenges are had with a little planning. A well-planned trail will have a balance of steep grades and flat stretches, as well as a few alternate off-shoot routes to mix things up a bit. It should be strenuous but doable, with at least one hill steep enough that anything resembling a running pace is impossible.

When you’re cranking up a hill like that, you slow practically to a crawl. Moments take root — like climbing Maslow’s Hierarchy by way of Zeno’s dichotomy. Each step is half as effective as the last, each breath twice as laborious. Pain becomes a work-through instead of a work-around — and your will persists. Memory and imagination fade while the moments arise. Time later for rebuilding and reflecting. Watching the moments, Self is in clear view.

Playifying Work

I finally had time to run through another delightful presentation on gamification by Sebastian Deterding, Don’t Play Games With Me! Promises and Pitfalls of Gameful Design. There’s always more under the hood of Deterding’s presentations, and this one was no exception — great stuff on game design in general, fun theory, designing choice and the impact of more-or-less gamifying life. Some slides are mashed up from his other presentations (all excellent), but this one is longer and more philosophical.

The general grok for me is that modern gamification is often an attempt at simply playifying work — a worthy pursuit but also very often too clever, too much of a trick and fatigue-inducing. Of course that makes me think about workifying play — something a missed game implementation does by over-burdening an otherwise playful game mechanic (easy to do and not uncommon).
Note: At this point I’m now no longer even thinking about the presentation, but other things I can -ify. Like WordPress, which both blogifies websites and webifies blogs. Apple, who has appified smartphones. Google, who has brought searchification to every website. And of course VC’s, who fundify entrepreneurs.

Sitting on a Gold Mine

Rovio announced last week that they’re partnering with Barnes & Noble to geo-contextualize Angry Birds. Customers can now download a free “Mighty Eagle” add-on on their NOOKs at any store. I don’t often get to B&N (Amazon will usually do), and I’m not a NOOK fan, but maybe it’s awesome.

Then again maybe not-so-much. The add-on is part of Rovio’s larger “Magic Places” (love the name, actually) rollout, which they announced last month and which aims to use connected devices and location to expand Angry Birds. Magic Places will work a little like a traditional location-based game — when a player arrives at a specific location, she can use her smartphone to unlock special game content like new characters (e.g. the Mighty Eagle) and levels.

This is more gaming value than location-based gamification — and it’s a step in the right direction — but it’s not very thoughtful, considering the gold mine that Rovio is sitting on. Don’t get me wrong, they’ve got the right idea — according to Gigaom’s brief interview with Rovio Product Manager Ramine Darabiha, Rovio sees Magic Places as a way to encourage players to find new places and content, and they view location as a legit distribution channel.

But Gigaom reported that Rovio’s plan isn’t to aggressively monetize Magic Places, but to build deeper engagement with the Angry Birds brand.

Razzle-frazzel-frackin-fricken. It’s another example of Low-Hanging Fruit Syndrome, and while no surprise, I was hoping for better. After all, Rovio’s been in the trenches. They developed a slew of titles, many of which were unsuccessful, before Angry Birds. They came back from near-bankruptcy at the eleventh hour. And they’re from Finland.

Building brand makes complete sense — that’s a big piece of what they should be doing, but they’re already doing it with merch, film, lots of press and of course porting and extending. Not to mention their $42B round of funding in March (a chunk of that money, I would think, is paying for marketing).

If they want location to help them reach a billion downloads by the end of next year, they’re going to need more than the unite-retailers-with-customers model. Their markets are big and the Birds are still on fire, but a billion downloads? They’re at about one quarter of that goal today. Rovio CEO Mikael Hed is talking wartime but his location strategy has gone peacetime.

Rovio should stay on-product and re-innovate to fully leverage location. Why not let players design their own basic birds and/or levels and drop them anywhere on the globe? Use AR to find “birds in the wild” to top it off. Reward mobility but don’t require it. Give the crowd a way to crowd-source and share actual game content — be scrappy and focus on a location strategy that has a better impact on gameplay.

Where, Here and Every There

Pyramid recently came up with a $10B, 2015 prediction for the overall location-based services market. According to their numbers, that’s almost 4x higher than their $2.8B total in 2010 (even more interesting is how mobile operators have lost around 30% of the total revenue in the last two years, while the market grew 5x). Strategy Analytics is predicting similar growth at $10B for 2016 (both firms, by the way, report advertising as a big percentage of revenue).

Google said last year that one-third of mobile searches are local searches. They also recently disclosed that 40% of all Google Map use is mobile. And Google Places is growing at a rate of about one million ratings and reviews per month.

Much of the growth so far has certainly been about finding places and looking up directions — this is the power of where. It started, more or less, with the world’s first consumer handheld GPS receiver, and we’ve been hooked ever since.

The power of where has made navigation ubiquitous, saving countless gallons of gasoline and probably relieving more stress than all of the pharmacists and therapists combined in the last twenty years. The power of where will keep GPS honest and make it more accurate — far more accurate than it is today. The power of where will create and fill bigger POI databases. The power of where is strong.

What may be stronger is the derivative of the power of where — the power of here (coined by Marissa Mayer at SXSW). The power of here is “what can I do?” or “what do I need to know?”, and it can tie the physical and digital worlds together in a much more compelling way than the power of where.

The platforms and products that are happening to support the power of here — better maps,  geographically-aware databases, augmented reality, augmenting location with crowd-sourced data and AR — make complete sense. They scale well with the current infrastructure. They’re natural milestones on the location timeline.

The power of here is behind Foursquare’s 10M users in two years, as well as the early success of Gowalla, MyTown, Google Latitude and others. These new types of dedicated location-based services are working.

On top of that, there’s a growing mobile-access storm brewing on every major planet in the social media galaxy, transforming it into a geosocial universe. Not to mention all of the cool stuff Google alone has happening. “Here” is emerging from — or answering — “where”.

But where do we go from “here”? (My apologies, I couldn’t resist). The power of here has its own derivative — we’ll call it the power of there, just to keep up the wordplay. To borrow from physics, the power of there is a bit like the rate of change, over time, of the power of here (that’s a little dense, but stay with me).

If the power of where asks “where can I go?”, and the power of here asks “what can I do?”, the power of there responds with the instantaneous flow of content. It’s the scope of what you’re doing and the direction you’re headed. It’s the content flowing back and forth between the digital and physical worlds. It’s the path to where you’re not. (For physicists, kind of a wave-particle duality; for mathematicians and C programmers, a bit like a tilde).

In Orc Defender, for example, the power of there is the point at which a player thinks that, while she’s in a virtual world fighting another orc in single combat, she is fighting for land ownership in the real world. The power of there is deceptively strong, since it glues location-based content with memory and imagination. The power of there is also more difficult to get right, since it requires careful design and creative use of context to avoid content fatigue.

Where, Here, and every There — together they represent a powerful future for location-based services and platforms. For location-based gaming in particular, it’s a fantastic formula for play.


While we expect our upcoming game, World Siege: Orc Defender, to stand on its own as a fun-filled, fantasy-themed gaming experience, what’s more interesting to me are some of its prototypical components. The game has a lot of under-the-hood stuff – a cloudy game server, our client engine and bandwidth-friendly 3D character tech, map clustering algorithms, and novel interface components. Although parts of the design come from a lot of traditional game development experience (fighting mechanics and PVE, for example), other parts are based on a lot of research and tail-wagging-the-dog mind-circles. To see some of that research hit the light makes this game a little extra-special.

One of the nuggets in the game is a fundamental part of the platform we’re developing at Kineplay — I call it a “splace” (space U place = splace). The basic concept is easy — it’s simply a location in our physical world where you step into some other space (or arguably some other place — but that’s less evocative and the resulting term is less appealing).

It’s like augmented reality — but not quite, since the focus is not modifying one reality but the relationship between two separate realities (real and virtual — which makes it a bit like virtual realty, but again, not quite. VR is focused more on one-way simulation). One of the key parts of the relationship is the knowledge of one reality while occupying the other — with somewhere to return to in each reality, memory and imagination can ignite the senses (seems esoteric as hell, I know, but go with it for now).

Orc Defender demonstrates splaces in a highly visual way by enabling players to step from 3D real-world to 3D virtual-world and back again, and it’s magical. Like the tents in Harry Potter transforming into a huge room, or the police box in Dr. Who revealing the entire TARDIS, or perhaps just good old multiverse theory, there’s something irresistible to me about the idea of splace.

As it turns out, there are a ton of awesomely cool things you can do once you focus on the relationship between space and place, and I look forward to writing more about them, in addition to thoughts about gaming, location, AR, VR, HCI and other bits that I hope are relevant.

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