Adam Atomic's blog
The Hunger Games: Girl on Fire - Available Now for Free on the iTunes App Store
The Hunger Games: Girl on Fire is the official teaser game for The Hunger Games and is available now, for free (no ads!), on the iTunes App Store.
Thank you first to the Girl on Fire team: programmers (and designers) Kevin, Mark and Guy, lead artist Paul, composer Danny B, the sound engineers at Ozone, and Kert for the sweet trailer you see above. There is no math sufficient to describe how impossible this would have been without them!
Thank you to our team at Lionsgate, who were, all things considered, extraordinarily patient and dedicated: David (who thought this crazy project up in the first place), Jessica, and Eric. If David hadn’t looked me up this thing would never have existed, so thanks guys :)
Thanks also to Suzanne Collins for creating such a wonderful story in the first place, and for her help with making sure the game had a place in that story. Finally, special thanks to the friends and family of the team for all their support throughout this project, especially my wife Bekah.
The Pinch Artist (or, Contributors and Symbiosis?)
After hearing Nathan Vella’s talk at Indiecade this year, I reorganized my personal website into three distinct categories: creator projects, collaborator projects, and contributor projects. Contributor projects are projects that don’t really reflect my vision, or whatever you would call it. My input was limited to simply helping it exist somehow. The team or project was missing a piece, and I could fill that role, or complete that section, and help realize someone else’s vision.
This is something I used to do a lot of, but as a freelancer. There was some satisfaction there but it was different than what I’ve been doing lately. For the last few years, I’ve had the opportunity to work voluntarily as a contributor, or “pinch artist”, on some high-profile projects, most notably Polytron’s much-anticipated ambient-exploration platformer FEZ, but also on the iPad port of Aquaria that my company published (and a bunch of other small things too). It has been a massively rewarding experience, even though the work itself is not always particularly thrilling.
Adam helped us out in a lot of small ways. After Paul Robertson was done with the big batch of animations we contracted him to do, we’d still come up with new details we’d need animated. things like waterfalls, caustics and additional effects and character movements. Adam offered to help, we quickly agreed to a super amicable deal, and that was pretty much it. Since he wasn’t a full-time team member, i’d just ping him a few days in advance, asking if he could make time this week for this or that, and then he would! It was really nice to have this kind of “casual contractor” we knew we could count on whenever we needed something new animated. (Phil Fish)
What is a “pinch artist” exactly? To me, it means a few different things. One, I am bringing all my skills to bear on this project, and all my sensibilities as an artist, but my goal is to realize someone else’s vision. Sometimes this means emulating or manipulating another style (Derek’s gorgeous backgrounds and sprite work in Aquaria), or helping to design a new approach to something that suits everyone involved (like square water for FEZ). But the pinch artist is there as an assistant, a facilitator, an enabler. A pinch artist is not a critic, and a pinch artist never makes a suggestion they don’t want to personally commit to implementing (unless they are specifically asked for feedback of course).
A pinch artist is not a full-time contributor. A pinch artist may not even contribute a full person-month of hours even at the end of a multi-year project. A pinch artist may not be an “artist” in the traditional sense at all - maybe they are a web guru, or a database genius.
As with most game designers, I’ve got reams of ideas that I’d love to see implemented. In some cases, time constraints prevent those ideas from coming to fruition. In other cases, a lack of artistic or technical skill will stand in my way. But when Matthew and I sat together for a day or two, some of those ideas have suddenly become possible. Matthew is an expert with Unity and database technology, and working with him we created some tech just for the sake of building something fun. In one case, we built the database backend for a collaborative level editor that would allow for a number of concurrent users never seen in a game before. Building tech or even small games in these rapid development settings is often the best way to evaluate whether a game idea, or a piece of tech is worth investing real blood and sweat into. (Andy Schatz)
A pinch artist may not even be a “specialist”, even if that’s their role on your project. But generally speaking, the pinch artist is a part-time helper with a specific focus and a specific ability that helps get the project into the air with just a little less friction and terror, and a little more quality and attention to detail.
There’s two benefits to having someone contribute to your project. First, work gets done and you don’t have to do it. This sounds super simple, but when your pushing to finish a project and time is at a premium, one less component to worry about is a godsend.
The second is less obvious but much more important. It adds another fresh set of eyes & a fresh perspective to the project, often when you’re utterly burnt out and have lost all your perspective. Games are a medium where one little idea can push a project from good to great, or from great to greater, and sometimes subbing in a pinch hitter will provide that. It could be as basic as a redesign for a small piece of art or an additional sound for a key moment… or as big as a design concept that adds a ton.
On #sworcery, Jim Guthrie’s music was the hallmark piece… but one song & one set of sounds came from Scientific American (aka scntfc). The moon grotto song, and listening station sounds really added to #sworcery. Not just in a “hey this is cool” way, but in a tangible, “the game is actually better with them” way. (Nathan Vella)
Part of the power of being a contributor is the 80-20 rule, or the idea that sometimes a lot of the value or appeal of a finished work can be created with relatively little time and effort. Inviting contributors to work on your game or getting the opportunity to contribute to someone else’s game improves the likelihood that you’ll find more of those little gems that have a big impact.
In games, though, maybe the most common manifestation of the 80-20 rule is that the first 80% of a project takes just 20% of the overall effort, and the last 20% takes 80% of the effort. Pinch artists can help chip away at that latter 20% in a way that is psychologically and objectively meaningful, remaining fresh and excited about a project that may have lost some of its luster for the core team.
Haha, this is starting to sound like a public service announcement isn’t it? “Help change a life; become a pinch artist today!” That makes it sound like charity work or something, which isn’t quite how it works or feels. But it is a scale of collaboration that was new to me a couple years ago, and I’ve been noticing more and more is a really positive thing, especially for smaller studios. Even as a relative control freak obsessed with my own ideas, I’ve really enjoyed making contributions to my friends’ games over the last couple years.
For game makers who are looking for a way to blow off some creative steam, donating a little bit of your time to helping someone else’s game exist is a great way make the world better and still expand your own gameography and experience at the same time.
My Favorite Films from Fantastic Fest 2011
I posted one of these last year, though in a slightly more timely fashion. Before I completely forget about these films I wanted to repost them here, as they should be either getting limited US releases or becoming available on netflix (or getting easier to bt!) sometime soon.
My #1 film of the festival this year was A Boy and His Samurai, from the team that brought us the marvelous fugitive film Golden Slumber last year:
I particularly loved the main conflict in this film had to do with trying to figure out what a modern family is, and how that works, logistically and psychologically. I feel like films ignore this but that it is just a huge part of life in the modern world. Wonderful!
My #2 film was the small but surprisingly vivid slow-burn sci-fi Carre Blanc:
Carre Blanc didn’t floor me, but it was so tight, and tidy, and meticulous, and cold, and funny… if A Boy and His Samurai wasn’t so absurdly adorable and sweet Carre Blanc would have been my favorite film without question.
I also thoroughly enjoyed the following movies and can recommend them without reservation. Many of these films contain… adult content, in one form or another, just a heads up! In no particular order:
How to Steal 2 Million (brilliant low-key South African noir - lead actor is so charismatic!)
You Said What?
Snowman’s Land (if you dug In Bruges definitely check this one out)
I also want to call out one film in particular, Milocrorze, but primarily for one scene, involving a super slow-mo single cut sequence of a samurai crashing through a brothel in unbelievable style that went on seemingly forever, with visual cues from the almost abstract renderings of ancient samurai you see on scrolls in museums. It’s an incredible scene. The rest of the movie does not compare!
And finally, the festival offerings I most sorely regret missing:
The Yellow Sea (the new film from the South Korean crew that created The Chaser!)
Extraterrestrial (from Time Crimes and Oscar-winning 7:35am director Nacho Vigalondo)
Beyond the Black Rainbow
[aw man I couldn’t even find a trailer for this!!]
You’re Next (pulled from the festival after securing distribution after the first screening. That’s how good it is. Criminy.)
Hopefully Thought-Provoking Ideas From My Trip to Los Angeles
Earlier this month I got to spend a few days in LA, speaking at IndieCade and having some really inspirational conversations with friends I don’t get to see much. It was humbling and overwhelming in a lot of ways. I wanted to share some of the ideas I picked up from the trip with you, and record them for posterity before I cleared off that part of my whiteboard.
I should stress that I did not think these things up myself, nor am I certain that these are somehow universal truths. These are things that came up in the course of conversation with some people for whom I have an immense amount of respect, and the ideas struck me as thought-provoking or inspirational in one way or another. I hope you’ll read these in the same spirit of thoughtful consideration, and whether you ultimately agree with them or not I hope you find them interesting or useful.
NOTE: I have attempted to credit the folks who turned me on to each idea, but I have also paraphrased these ideas for this brief transcription. Anything about the formulation of the following ideas that seems wrong or bad or whatever is almost definitely my fault, and not theirs at all!! Nor am I claiming necessarily that these ideas are deeply held beliefs of the credited individuals. But these ideas are somehow connected to these individuals in my head, and I’d like to at least thank them for that.
Tabula Rasa: If you live someplace or work in an industry or study in a field that is relatively new, it is easy to feel like the lack of foundations, history or tradition might doom our existence in those spheres to be somehow less rich or less valid than life in a more traditional or historically rich space. But what if the opposite is true? What if tradition and history choke innovation and strangle evolution? What if we can invent our own traditions and our own standards? What if we can learn from the traditions of everything around us and use those ideas to build our own rich culture, full of the best of everything from everywhere else, but free of some of the crippling constraints? (Kazu Kibuishi)
Power of Focus: Picking one thing and sticking to it and obsessing over it forever can change the world in impossible, unimaginable ways. (Kazu Kibuishi)
Service: A lot of people like to talk about providing things “as a service” these days, but maybe it’s more interesting to think of “service” less like a commercial or retail system, or more like the religious and/or civil connotations. Maybe the art we make is a service in that sense. Something we owe humanity in exchange for being human. (Kazu Kibuishi)
Making Mainstream Art: As an indie game dev it is really easy to settle into a kind of comfortable disdain for mainstream games or mainstream gamers or the amorphous and vaguely threatening mainstream itself. It’s really important to remember though that a lot of the things we perceive as mainstream in games (Call of Duty, Halo, etc) aren’t mainstream for humans at all. Maybe thinking of “mainstream games” as games for humans, instead of games for gamers, is a more interesting and valid pursuit. (Kazu Kibuishi)
Experiential Systems: One of the great strengths of video games has nothing to do with “gamey” systems, and everything to do with atmosphere and that certain sense of place and mystery and isolation and connection. However, I think it’s common for people to think of these sorts of videogames as being somehow less system-based than more “gamey” experiences. I guess what I’m saying is don’t underestimate the systemic complexity of a good Not-Game, or “open” game. It’s quite possible that “gamey” games are the easier systems to build. (Kris Piotrowski)
Folk Games: Folk games (JOUST, Ninja) and folk game design is totally amazing and ridiculously fun. Folk games may be to tabletop what tabletop is to videogames. Badly want to put on some Austin game jams now that don’t involve computers even a little bit, Flixel be damned. (Doug Wilson)
Infinite Truths: Designing games that explore and illustrate surprising truths about systems is a worthwhile and satisfying alternative to “fun” or “addictive” game design, and perfectly suited to the strengths of videogames. (Jonathan Blow)
Collaboration & Contribution: Work with as many people on as many projects as you can. Everyone is amazing and including them in your “work” in whatever capacity makes sense just enriches everyone all the time forever. (Nathan Vella)
The Big Picture: We spend a lot of time solving small problems in game design - balancing, tuning, and so on. But it rarely feels like we tackle longer-term, almost meta-problems in our designs. I’m having trouble explaining more than this without giving away things I can’t give away, but I am concerned that our expertise at solving short- and medium-term problems is distracting us from considering all the advances that could be made in communicating long-term goals, and I think this can have a huge impact on our new audience of truly “mainstream” players. (Jordan Mechner)
Contrivance and Extortion II: Clarifications, Feedback & Suggestions
I don’t hate the freemium business model. That is a silly, made-up word anyways, and as many people rightly pointed out, is a term that can be broadly applied to include things like shareware or other transparent and common business models. Even downloading demos and unlocking the full version of a game could be considered freemium. Others rightly observed that freemium has all sorts of advantages - players can try games for free, pay for as much game as they want, and so on.However, my article was specifically about the most popular, most widely talked about, most widely implemented and most widely marketed modern expressions of the “freemium” or “free to play” business model. The least harmful of these expressions is “level up faster” style freemium (Forever Drive, Jetpack Joyride to a lesser extent), in which the value of an extrinsic checklist takes priority over any intrinsic interest or value in the game system. The most harmful of these expressions is “pull the rug” style freemium (Infinity Blade), in which the rate at which players progress through the intrinsic and extrinsic systems in the game is suddenly changed at some optimal point, hopefully after “hooking” players.As expected, the article got some strong reactions, from both sides of the camp (if that is such a thing). The strongest reactions, not surprisingly, were from developers of games that use these business models. Many were from developers who don’t actually use these specific designs, and with whom I have no gripe, but I guess “freemium” is a touchy subject for a lot of people! Again, I don’t think that freemium is inherently evil, regardless of how silly a word it may be. But these particular expressions of it are definitely evil, as I explained.
Before I introduce my suggestions and ideas for ways to take advantage of the positive aspects of freemium, I want to address some of the most common, kneejerk reactions to predatory game design criticism (including a lot of freemium game criticism), and why these are utterly illegitimate defenses of these unethical practices. This doesn’t mean there aren’t other, more legitimate defenses; I have just seen these ones pop up a lot in the last two days, and would like to address them in bulk.
I hope that this somewhat clarifies my stance: “level up faster” and “pull the rug” style designs are unethical and dishonest, and the popularity and momentum of this approach is bad for players and the industry at large. However, unethical game designs are not limited to just freemium games! There are many games that are shallow and addictive, using simple psychological hacks like skinner boxes and checklists to engage people beyond the point when the system is offering up intrinsic pleasure. These tactics have existed for decades, but the rise of “social games” and “freemium games” have pushed them back into the spotlight. I propose a new term that includes all of these abusive, manipulative and addictive game designs: predatory game design.
Whiners, Trolls, Hurt Feelings, Meanness, Tone, etcThis defense takes many forms, thus the long title, but the result is the same no matter what: a dismissal of the argument without actually addressing any of the points or presenting a counter-argument, and a simultaneous attempt to discredit the original presenter (in this case, me). Some quick examples of the actual manifestations of this defense:“[responding] won’t do any good, and it’ll waste my time + raise my blood pressure.”“I’m so tempted to write a counter blog post, but it would just be feeding the trolls. Whoever argues the longest wins.”“I can’t believe all the bashing I’m reading about freemium games! The argument is “they’re not like games I like, so they’re crap”.”“If you’d asked first, we might have engaged in a philosophical conversation about it, because we might have had the impression you were actually curious to discuss rather than soapboxing. Now, forget it.”“Yet another article complaining about In-App purchasing. How droll.”“The whole argument behind the blogger’s post falls down to two points that are thinly veiled.
1. f2p players are dumb.
2. f2p developers are thieves who are just money grabbing.
Whenever you see an argument like that you’re either looking at someone trying to join a political race, or prey on ignorance. Neither are respectful or adult ways to start a conversation.”This defense accomplishes two important things, neither of which are actually defenses of the practices in question. First, it prevents them from having to actually point out any actual flaws in my argument. Second, it mis-characterizes both my argument and the arguments of anyone bothered by these trends as being about personal dislike, rather than evaluations of game systems and player psychology.
Players Voted With Their WalletsThis defense takes many forms as well, but I think that phrase sums it up very nicely. The argument here is that because predatory game designs actually work, and the developers make money (and lots of it), that that somehow validates these designs as ethical. This is sociopathic reasoning. It is like arguing that some activity or other is only illegal if you get caught, or that if you can’t prove that i’m lying, then obviously i’m not.The fact that predatory game designs reap massive financial rewards should be setting off warning alarms in our heads, not indignant defenses of the practice justified by circular logic and correlation.
Games Have Always Been About GreedI like this one a lot, for multiple reasons. First, it is a tacit admission that predatory game design is in fact greedy and bad for players, the humans who support us in our creative endeavors. Second, and I say this without irony or sarcasm, it rightly points out predatory game designs that pre-dated the modern freemium business models. Common examples are the grind-fest of Diablo, or the quarter-sucking arcade machines of days of yore. While I would argue that those games were at least more transparent about your psychological and financial investment, they are valid points, and should be part of the discussion.However, “of course these games are greedy” is a pretty sad defense.
All Games Are AddictiveWhile the line between genuine intrinsic engagement and addiction may sometimes be fuzzy, that line definitely exists. Some of the most influential games of recent times could hardly be described as either addictive or designed with player addiction in mind: Braid, Ico, Flower, Portal, and so on…The idea that all games are addictive is demonstrably false, and no excuse for creating deliberately addictive and predatory games.
Players Have a ChoiceSimilar to the “players voted with their wallets” defense, but different in some key ways. In this defense, the argument I believe is something like “hey man - we just put some things up for sale. if people buy them, they buy them - it’s their call. how is that bad?” This is profoundly disingenuous. You could make the same claim about grocery stores, but there is an entire industry dedicated to figuring out how to “make” people shop. Pretending that that same process is not happening in predatory games is ridiculous.Predatory game designs can and do design environments to strongly encourage and incentivize the purchase of unnecessary things by manipulating player psychology.
As Long As It’s Fun, It’s OKNOTE: I may update this section at later, as this is exactly what Tak Fung (Forever Drive) and I are discussing right now. So, this section is my theory and my understanding, and I may be able to update it with better ideas later!This defense is specifically for “level up faster” style freemium models of predatory game design. This is I think a particularly insidious idea, because, unlike the other defenses, it can be hard to spot what’s wrong with it until you back up about 10 feet and see the big picture. This idea is one of the reasons I wrote that article in the first place. I think it is an idea that is very sticky, very attractive, and even masquerades as ethical, or at the very least lawful-neutral.This idea could be paraphrased as such: “Some players just don’t have as much time as other players. I want to provide a deep play experience for as wide an audience as possible, including people who are busy. If they have money, and want to skip ahead, why is that bad? Especially if the game itself is fun?”Untangling this proposition forces us to back up a bit and examine the whole game system and business model and the way they connect, and question some of the assumptions in that idea. First, games in which you can “level up faster” are, by necessity, games with an experience points system or leveling system of some sort. We can take that for granted. Second, usually if there is an experience or leveling system, there is some kind of checklist somewhere, where the player can unlock new things based on their experience or level.The “as long as it’s fun, it’s ok” argument posits, then, that as long as the intrinsic play or game experience is more interesting for players than the extrinsic checklist component, using an otherwise predatory game design pattern is acceptable.However, if the gameplay was more important and more compelling than the checklist, then it follows, I think, that no one would actually pay money in order to be able to achieve morechecklist progress with less gameplay. That would run pretty directly counter to the whole game design.However, if the checklist is in fact more compelling than the gameplay, and more important, then one can see how players would be willing to spend real money to avoid gameplay and acheive more of the checklist.I think it is very important to acknowledge this basic relationship, this basic systemic implication: if you sell the ability to “level up faster”, your business model probably depends on making money from the people who enjoy your game the least, and are the most succeptible to manipulative and addictive checklist features.I would really love to be wrong about this, but I can’t see this problem from another perspective (yet). If there is another side, please share it in the comments!
Doing It RightSo hopefully by now you understand the types of predatory game designs with which I take issue. There are some sound arguments against these kinds of designs, which I have tried to present in these two articles. The widespread use of these designs needs at the very least to be defended if it is going to continue unquestioned; it’s not an issue that can be ignored or dismissed anymore.However, as many people (including myself) have pointed out, it’s a lot easier to knock a house down than it is to build it up in the first place. So, a proposition: let’s knock down the house we built so far; it’s a crappy house. It takes all the worst aspects of game design and amplifies them using all the worst aspects of this new freemium craze.Let’s build a newer, better one in its place. Let’s look at the positive aspects of freemium, and build games around those things instead. Let’s give this business model a good name, and in turn give this massive sector of the game industry a good name too. Here are some things that freemium is great at:
Probably there are even more advantages to this whole “freemium” thing, and in-game purchases, but these are the ones that stick out to me. None of these things are inherently evil, obviously. These all sound profoundly ethical, even. Maybe we need some guidelines, going forward; maybe we need to erect some artificial contraints to keep us honest. I would like to propose a few here, and I hope that we can continue exploring these in the comments:
- Convenience: If I want to buy add-ons for a game, leaving the game and going to some other menu or system or device or geographical location is awesomely enough an absurdity in this day and age. Getting more content in the most convenient way and supporting developers at the same time - what could go wrong?
- Lower Customer Risk: The days of buying a $60 game and hoping it doesn’t just thoroughly suck are thankfully behind us.
- Flexibility: Episodic games, cosmetic alterations, global buy-ins… there are genuine opportunities for experimentation and more, better ways for players to support us.
The goal with all of these guidelines is to reduce contrivance and increaseconvenience. Freemium game technology can be one of the tools we use to increase convenience, but if it is at the price of contrivance, we are doing a profound disservice to the players that support us.
- In-Game Purchasing Presentation: We need to balance the convenience offered here, and the intrusion into the game. Once i’m done playing the game, and have exited back to the game’s main menu, if I can access a store there, that’s a big improvement I think. I don’t have to go back to the app store just to get more levels or the next episode, but it’s also not being stuff in my face as I play.
- Checklist Usage: Checklists are one of the hallmarks of predatory game design, but we can ask ourselves a couple of simple questions when we are adding a checklist to our game. First, how is this checklist presented? Does it only appear if the player seeks it out, or is it constantly automatically presented? Second, what is the function of the checklist? Is it just a way to assign some trivial significance to player time spent in the game (an important metric for offering more IAP opportunities!), or does it provide some more interesting goals for the player? In Bit Pilot, there is a checklist that encourages you to play the game in weird new ways. In Costume Quest, there is a checklist that helps you avoid missing any story bits. In neither game does the checklist automatically appear during play.
- Skinner Box Usage: Random drops and other gambling systems obviously should either be abandoned entirely or used with extreme care, especially when coupled with real-world money systems. I can’t think of a time when this is an ok system to use honestly, but maybe someone will come up with something in the comments.
Contrivance and Extortion: In-App Purchases & Microtransactions
At IndieCade last week, Jon Blow (Braid, The Witness) used the term “contrivance” to describe all the bullshit we put between players and the game; between players and the puzzle; between players and the system; between players and the experience. Whether the contrivance is intentional or not is not as important as its mere existence, the fact that it is a significant obstacle, whether the part of the game that is the most interesting is exposed as much as possible to the player.
Last night I got caught up on some recent and not-so-recent iOS games that I’d been meaning to check. These games were all official Apple “Game of the Week” or otherwise pretty hefty critical and commercial successes: Forever Drive, Infinity Blade, and Jetpack Joyride.
I also checked out two smaller titles: Async Corp and Super Crossfire HD. Super Crossfire is a really solid and simple arcade game (ported from the highly respected XBLIG title of the same name) that takes some of the arena shooter innovations from the last few years and puts them into a Space Invaders game with a cool “warping” mechanic. Async Corp (pointed out to me by Simon Flesser of Ilo Milo and Bumpy Road) is a strange and wonderful little puzzle game that I am still rolling around in my head, and may write more about later. Actually, Bumpy Road is rather important to the points I am about to make…
I want to make three distinct points, which I will elaborate on below. The first is that developers need to be more cognizant and responsible about something I’m calling the Checklist Effect. The second is that In-App Purchases violate the sacred circle of play in a profound way. Games that do both of these things, that abuse checklists and include In-App Purchases, are deliberately contriving their designs in the worst way in order to extort money from players, which is unethical and unacceptable design practice. Finally, games that intrude on my phone’s home screen with advertisements for other products, using the iOS notification badges especially, though less contrived, are contrived for the same greedy reason.
The Checklist Effect
I was originally going to call this the Pokemon Effect, but probably that would be illegal or something. And besides, it complicates things a bit. This probably also has an actual neuroscience or psychology term that I should be using, but I haven’t worked out what that would be yet. Regardless, the Checklist Effect is that subtle and slight psychological effect that seeing a big checklist of in-game items or abilities has on players. It is usually a subtle push, a barely detectable need to “accomplish” everything on the list. This could just as well be called the Achievements Effect probably, but that complicates things too. Checklists outside of games can have a similar effect I think - a slight pressure to check off each item, to be done; mischief managed.
It is time to acknowledge both that this effect exists, and also that most of the time this is a manipulative and unpleasant thing to do to players, all the more so because they may not realize it is even happening. I frequently do realize it, and it is a big turnoff for me. In Simon Flesser’s ridiculously charming game Bumpy Road, players can discover or pick up polaroids or photographs from the main characters’ past life. As far as I can tell getting these pictures is tied more to time spent playing or distance traveled, more than skill or understanding. To be fair, play skill and understanding do make distances easier to travel in games like this… but the relationship still stands. When I opened up the photo album menu feature, to check out the story unfolding in the photographs I’d recovered, I found that after playing for 5 or 10 minutes I had collected only 1 or 2 of what seemed to be a hundred or more photos! Some quick mental math reminded me that I don’t have that many hours to spend on something that isn’t inherently deep and engaging.
On the flipside, I have played some iOS games recently that had really interesting achievements or checklists. Shaun Inman’s The Last Rocket, with a total of four achievements, asks the player to play the game in a new, weird way for each item. Zach Gage’s Bit Pilot makes absurd and wonderful demands of player’s skill: no single achievement takes more than a minute or two to earn, but requires incredible dexterity and focus. Some of Bit Pilot’s achievements are limited to fewer than 10 players so far! In both of these cases, the games themselves stand on their own, and the checklists exist only as bait to lead players to a new epiphany or new understand of the game system. These are responsible and ethical uses of checklists in games.
The Sacred Circle
This is an old idea about games and play, usually credited to Johan Huizinga, the oft-quoted author of Homo Ludens. The idea of the sacred circle is that it is the boundary between the imperfect, consequence-laden, quantum and random real world we all inhabit, and the perfect, impossible and imaginary world of games and play. The sacred circle is the line that divides the real world from the ancient, powerful and beneficial world of play.
The integration of in-app purchases feels like a brutal violation of the sacred circle; it is allowing the real world, and my real money, to intrude on and influence my performance. To me, this is different than a poker buy-in, and different from deciding to “unlock” the full version of a game from inside a demo. These processes are in some fundamental way external from the game itself, from the actual state of play. These “games” may be a pleasurable activity for many but this seems like a profound corruption of millennia of play.
Together, a Maelstrom of Suck
When you put these things together, you get “games” like Infinity Blade and Forever Drive. The moment to moment play is engaging for a few minutes or even an hour, but then we have seen pretty much all there is to see. The systems themselves are not deep enough to merit or encourage further exploration for their own sake (intrinsically), so an extrinsic system (a checklist) is created to subtly (and not so subtly) nudge the player forward, well beyond when the player has completely explored the system, puzzles or overall aesthetic experience. That in and of itself is bad design, but games like this push it even further.
The checklists in these games have been very deliberately designed to require a certain amount of grinding or waiting to advance. We either have to fight the same fight over and over, or race the same tracks over and over, until we can afford the next item on the checklist, which will enable us, largely irrespective of our own skills as a player, to proceed. If it was possible to succeed in these games without the checklist, that would be one thing. But these games are very deliberately designed to ensure that not only do you need the checklist to succeed, but in fact successfully completing the checklist is prohibitively slow and/or annoying to do.
That’s when they step in, like a mafia godfather, and offer you a deal you can’t refuse: you’re a busy guy, you have kids, you have a job; if you slip me a little cash under the table, I’ll help you level up a little faster, maybe get through that next part of the checklist by tomorrow. This is extortion in the worst way; this is extortion of the time we have left until we die, the sole resource of consequence for human life. Developers who deliberately engage in this kind of design should be ashamed of their creations.
Jetpack Joyride, though guilty of the checklist effect, largely sidesteps the aforementioned Maelstrom of Suck by primarily selling totally unnecessary cosmetic items, and providing (to many) a reasonable balance of play-time and in-game currency rewards. My beef with Jetpack Joyride is not that it is genuinely evil, despite their irresponsible use of checklists (hundreds of items with an average price of $5000, when my first play of the game netted me a mere $300). My beef came when I decided to try out the next game on my phone only to notice a little notification badge had appeared on the game’s icon on my home screen.
Intrigued, I opened the game, but couldn’t find the notification on the screen I resumed from. Intrigued further, I skipped back to the main menu screen and found it on a little tab up in the corner. Feeling relatively satisfied and still curious, I opened the tab… and discovered an ad for a game made by some other company. This is a whole other kind of contrivance but motivated by the same greed and lack of respect for players.
Let’s all remind ourselves, as we build games, commercially and otherwise, that contrivances are bullshit. If your game is not first and foremost about the player and the experience, then you are not building games. You are building micro-retail stores, maybe, or greed engines, or something. I don’t know. But it’s not a game, and I don’t want it on my hardware.
If you want to know more about the math and psychology behind how games like Infinity Blade and Forever Drive work, I highly recommend my friend Tim Rogers’ excellent series who killed videogames? (a ghost story). If you want to check out Async Corp and Super Crossfire HD, a pair of ethical and interesting iOS games, just click their names! (actually Super Crossfire HD does have in-app purchases but for the life of me I can’t find where to get them or what their purpose is). You should also check out Bit Pilot and The Last Rocket if you never got around to it, their achievement design is really good.