Shady Nate

And now for something refreshingly not about games…

Esquire’s fiction contest this year challenged time-challenged writers to pack a story into 78 words. No, I didn’t win that trip to Aspen with Oprah… But I actually liked the timbre of what I finally came up with. Alas, this intro is longer than the story. And so:

Shady Nate, VP of Business That Runs Itself, has a desk photo: Sweet but sassy wife, plump uncrying infant. Finally joining the tyranny of the clueless happy.

Then: A diagnosis.

Meadows become minefields. Every word a restrained scream. Director of Performance Improvement. Bourbon postpones the Bang.

Misrouted email: Niral, in Finance, in thong, smartphone aimed at her hotel mirror. Meant for a luckier Nathaniel, in Sales.

The artifact lets Nate let go. A balloon drifts over the cemetery.

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Defending (Some of) the Cloners

Danc’s unforgiving essay against plagiarism in game design cuts close, a bit too close to my warm bones. My first instinct is to lash back with arguments such as “The Incremental trumps the Innovative” or “Repurposing lost greatness to reach the masses is saintly in of itself” or to urge him to just, like, lay off since there are Bills to Pay and Mouths to Feed.

My second instinct is to admit that Dan is 100% right. Like the too-rich landlord falling to his knees before a wild-eyed dustbowl preacher, I feel the urge to testify. To rend my suit and wail as I recount the Satanic thought process that has led me, more often than not, to bake my bread with the wheat of other people’s ideas.

But the reality is somewhat more nuanced.

I believe there are three distinct categories of game plagiarism. And since we’re making an ethical judgement here, it’s important to clarify:

  1. Reverse Engineering: If you have an edge on the means of distribution for a new ecosystem but need a “hit product” ASAP to distribute, then looking at another popular Game X and all-out cloning the sensibility, economy, theme, and user interface, has proven to be great business. Often this work can be done by a clever programmer with no background at all in psychology, storytelling, or economics.
  2. Synthesizing: If you understand the brilliantly-wired sources and sinks of Hit Game A, savvy viral design of Hit Game B, and beloved theme of Hit Game C and blend them together, then this is way to create something low-risk but still fresh. The world all-out canonizes people that successfully “steal but not borrow” this way, such as Picasso or Steve Jobs. This type of work takes the most discerning of design minds, a mind of pure and perfect taste that keenly understands exactly how to surgically combine the essential parts of each animal.
  3. Expanding: This happens when you love Game X so much you just want to build it yourself. As you build, you find yourself seeing flaws, prodding, tweaking, adding, excising, retrenching, and eventually stumbling out with something you genuinely like better than Game X. The outcome is familiar but has never quite been played before.

So the purist’s argument — Danc’s argument — is that the intention behind all three of these categories are fully guilty of Plagiarism. Yes, riches may flow to Savvy Reverse Engineers such as the makers of Farmville or Kingdoms of Camelot, epic audiences may flock to Master Synthesizers such as Millionaire City, and lasting cultural relevance may bless Expanders such as Bejewelled… but all of these companies and the people that toil within are Guilty, Guileless, and Unoriginal.

Speaking for myself, my career is actually more a dialectic between innovation and willful borrowing.

  • Feeling boundless and young, I tried to innovate. I found that it was hella difficult to finish something that was any good. So I picked a game and Expanded.
  • Feeling unfulfilled, I tried to innovate. I walked over coals. I fought armies of nay-sayers. Bloodied and weary, I delivered. The market crapped on me. I needed a quick, guaranteed recovery. I Reverse Engineered.
  • Feeling dirty, I tried to innovate. But being responsible for the livelihood of many others beside myself, I playtested and coldly, analytically began to understand what audiences who actually pay actually want. I Synthesized.

I’m hopeful, indeed — I am counting on the fact that some of the very out-there prototypes and half-formed ideas in my skull will one day be both purely innovative and widely enjoyed. But until then, I’m okay with delivering fun experiences based primarily on the hard work of those who have come before me as long as I’m changing things up enough to advance the genre and learn something from the process.

And so: I proudly defend Synthesizers and Expanders. It’s harder to argue for the ethics behind Reverse Engineers… but even there I have faith that, long term, those with a Reverse Engineering culture will find themselves unable to even slightly innovate. Those companies and individuals will stall out once they’ve ripped off all there is to obviously steal.

To flip things a little bit, Danc, I leave you with this challenge:

You have Truly Innovated (I friggin’ love Triple Town). Amazing, wonderful, unique, delicious work.

But is that enough? Whose fault is it if Triple Town doesn’t become a mega-hit and turn Spry Fox into a Billion Dollar company? What will it take for you to not only craft the New, but out-distribute the Reverse Engineers, pre-figure the Synthesizers, and beat the Expanders at their own game?

Go get ’em, Danc!

My Reese’s Moment

Nearly a decade ago, I took a leap to become one of the technical founders of a small company called NextGame — soon to emerge as iWin, Inc. What drove me was building innovative, quick-to-market experiments that:

  • Involved play
  • Told meaningful stories
  • Connected people

I believed that if I could hit on those three key notes in innovative ways then the things I helped build could usher in an entirely new form of mass market entertainment. I honestly believed in the power of play and that iWin’s games could significantly ratchet up people’s overall sense of happiness and fulfillment by stimulating their imaginations while forming real relationships.

Over the years iWin pivoted from skill-based online games to a downloadable games to social games,  from tournament-fee to in-game-ads to subscriptions. From Java to C++ to Flash. Working in conjunction with CJ Wolf, an imaginative, risk-taking, and market-savvy CEO, I spent most of my work days designing out “Version 1.0” products —  coordinating talented teams of  artists and engineers to take crazy ideas and, through a Frankenstein-like process of digital alchemy, make them live.

Some of the products I worked on failed miserably but most were viable little audience-builders and revenue-generators. A rare handful became big enough successes to spawn entirely new lines of business.  But looking back, almost none of the products hit simultaneously on those three idealistic notes of Play, Story, and Connectivity.

When Facebook’s platform opened up and “social games” began to gain momentum two or so years ago I saw a glimmer of hope in bringing those three forces together. I felt excited and charged-up in a way I hadn’t been since those early iWin years. And the eventual revelation that the virtual goods model was actually pumping out some serious cash was icing on the cake.

One of the new social games I helped tickle into existence using duct tape, spit, and static electricity was a little nugget called Family Feud. It combined a fantastic, classic game show format (one that makes unread people feel like champions of trivia), a truly together-with-family-and-friends social brand,  along with an original and meaningful viral hook. Tens of millions of players later, the game has done more than addicted a good chunk of Facebookies — it has become the focal point of iWin’s new strategy and I believe it will transform the company from a shrink-wrapped casual game publisher into a true contender in the social game — indeed, mass media — industry.

But an odd thing happened as a result of this success. My little “I-think-I-can” and “try a bit of this and a bit of that” company now needed discipline, focus… coordination. There was no longer a strong need for the mad scientist. The disruptor in me had to constantly bite his tongue and let the talented game-devs around me dig foundations deep and skyscrapers high.

Now… to digress a bit… an inspirational American businessman I hold in great esteem is George Washington Carver. Before Carver came on the scene, Southern agriculture  was basically monoculture — that is, focusing only on one crop: Cotton. Other crops were considered bad business.

Against all odds for a man of his skin color, this “Black Leonardo” combined his skills in scientific invention, hucksterism, agricultural engineering, and art to develop, teach, and build upon practical uses for peanuts, soybeans, pecans, and sweet potatoes. By understanding every aspect of numerous industrial processes he was able to combine wasteful by-products into hot new commodities. His vision ultimately expanded the overall economy and helped impoverished farmers grow more varieties. This meant families could rotate their fields to keep soil fertile, avoid catastrophe by relying on just one source of income, and overall break the downward cycle of cotton dependency. More to the point, Carver helped jolt the world awake with instant coffee and he spread mainstream the perfect, chunky deliciousness of peanut butter.

I don’t claim to be even a tiny peanut-shell-scrap of the man that George Washington Carver was, but I have had some success at shaking up monocultures and turning crap crop to peanut butter.

Enter into the story another American businessman I have long admired: One Trip Hawkins, the CEO of Digital Chocolate, founder of EA, and about as close as you can get to a real-life Video Game Titan. Trip and I occasionally bumped into each other throughout the years and had brief but deep chats about the directions of our respective companies, where the markets were going, and the pros and cons of various emerging platforms. Talk with him long enough and you’ll see that Trip is indeed an apt nickname. He’s got some Ideas with the capital-I.

The last time Trip and I met we were both in good moods. Much like iWin, Digital Chocolate has had an amazingly successful year due in large part to their own Facebook games such as Millionaire City. But Trip then spun a compelling tale about Digital Chocolate’s direction: A story that involved not just entrenching and building off their social game momentum but pulling back a bit, looking future-ward, and thinking through  bigger, badder, gapless ways that social networks, smartphones, TV, and the wider web itself can work in concert to give the world broader connected gameplay and deeper story.

And so… Peanut Butter… meet Chocolate.

As of November 1st, I will jump aboard as Digital Chocolate’s VP of New Platform Development. I’ll work with Trip and his world-class and world-strewn team, researching, interconnecting, and building upon cutting-edge game mechanics, business models, and technologies.

I’m certain it will be an unrivaled, and utterly delicious, education.

Designing the Ultimate Game of Tag

Here

The Perfect Terrain for Tag

Whenever you feel like you’re actually skilled at something related to game design, leave it to kids to trump you.

We were at a playground near lovely Avila Beach this past weekend when some kids approached mine for a game of tag. The ages and abilities of the participants varied greatly. As the game progressed, I was impressed at everyone’s communal game design chops. The kids play-tested, discussed, and iterated on the rules until they worked out an optimal experience that was challenging, fun, and fair for everyone involved.

Stage 1: “It” can’t touch wood (brown zones in photo above). In other words, using age-old tag parlance, wood was “base.”

This was okay for a while, but the play structures were big enough to provide several safe zones impossible for “it” to reach, and too many angles where tag-ees could break away far from “it’s” grasp. After realizing that life was too difficult for “it,” a new rule was added.

Stage 2: If anyone other than “it” touched sand, she would lose and immediately become the new “it.” This made things a bit easier for poor “it,” but there were still too many ways for people to evade the tagger.

Stage 3: Nobody except “it” can touch red. After a while, this was deemed too difficult for the tag-ees, since the red spongiform surface was the primary design, creating too many re cul-de-sacs. “It” would keep trapping people in impossible corners and nailing them in no time at all.

Which led to the final innovation:

Stage 4:Only “it” can touch blue or sand (yellow regions). This was perfect! This created a few “choke-points” around the area which had to be leapt or crossed in daring ways, making the terrain nuanced and tactically exciting.

By this point, every kid over the age of five was playing the game.

Unspoken rule: If perched on a wood plank trying to avoid “it,” you had to keep moving after a few beats to not be considered a lame-o. There wasn’t an official time limit, but it was important to try to make mad breaks to another part of the playground to keep the drama going.

What a cool concept!

Anyone up for doing some 3D modeling and coding this into a FPT (first-person-tagger)?

The Kindergarten Application Game

As the parent of a Kindergartner and someone unable to see the world other than through the filter of game design, I spend a lot of time thinking about what our educational system tells us about computer games… and vice versa.

See, in San Francisco, unlike most other American cities, the choice isn’t between your friendly neighborhood public school or a handful of private prep schools. In typical SanFran so-fair-its-unfair fashion, the choice is between a public lottery assignment based almost entirely on luck and a host of independent schools so competitive they make Survivor seem like a trip to grandma’s cottage.

The descent into the decision-making inferno starts with an innocent tour or two. Before you know it, the private schools have charmed the cynicism right off you with their music studios full of transcontinental woodwind instruments, their second grade film societies, and their organic nutritionists. Many of these institutions have their pluckiest students lead tours and you see first-hand how confident, well-spoken, and utterly certain of success these leaders of tomorrow are.

Meanwhile, most of the public school tours are given by harried principals, shuttling you through crowded classrooms that feature dazed kids slumped most unphotogenically going page by page through district-approved workbooks.

There are other choices, of course. You could always home school. Or there are democratic schools where kids do literally whatever they want all day (a good friend of mine made a brilliant little film about that). Or you can (heaven forbid) move to the suburbs and be guaranteed a solid and decently-crafted public education. But my family just wasn’t ready to seriously consider those lifestyle-changing experiments.

And so you fret. You over-think, over-worry, and over-indulge yourself with the school application process — a process you don’t have much control over.

“Chill out!” many outsiders say. “Let it ride!” After all, life isn’t like an RPG where the most skill points wins! Life is more about trade offs! It’s fuzzy in a way that RPGs just aren’t… where a boost in one attribute is often a detriment to another. Isn’t it all relative?

For instance: Private Schools give you a +10 Wealth (Elitism), +19 Charisma (Self-Assurance), and +13 Intelligence (Overall Academics), but they will totally stymie your Wisdom (Streetsmarts), Strength (Self-Reliance), and Dexterity (Diversity) quotients, right?

Well…

When your first-born child, your flesh and blood, the radiant light of your every lost hope, enters a system that will likely claim her for over a decade — it’s difficult to just “chill” and “let it ride.”

You consider your own educational upbringing, and how much in retrospect it affected and shaped you.

You try, really try, to know your five-year-old and anticipate the little creature’s intellectual, social, and cultural potentials.

You spend late nights skimming blogs that let you empathise with and debate other neurotic parents putting themselves through the same idiocy.

And you conclude, no matter your bent, that this is most certainly a big decision.

And so, as much I’d like to be politically correct and think the choice between private and public are equal sides to the same coin — that turns out to be an absurd argument. They just aren’t.

As unjust as it is, there’s a valid reason people pay over $230K per child for their child to experience nine years of elementary education.

That said, life isn’t exactly as simplistic as an RPG. It isn’t just about maxing out your skill points. In life, there really are core values assigned to each attribute, and real negative implications for earning too many points in one category over another. Some people want to give their children the greatest chance of future financial success. Others want to turn their kids into rebels. Everyone says they just want their children to be happy — but definions of happy are personal and parent-centric.

And so, unsure of where we stood, my wife and I played the game. A move to the suburbs lurked in the corner like a Martha-Stewarted bogeyman.

When the assignment letter came in the mail, we wound up getting none of our initial public school choices. Our child had been enrolled in a low-score, low-achieving “challenged” place in a “challenged” neighborhood far from our home.

We also got into a bedazzling private school.

On a whim, we toured the bottom-barrel public school and found it actually had a “hidden gem” of a Japanese immersion program.

We met with a few of the other parents in that program and developed some of our own point-distribution strategies given the new specific factors:

  • Public: +16 Cool New Language, +8 Ability to Make Palpable Difference, etc.
  • Private: -39 Financial Stress, -5 Snobbery, etc.

Full of fear, not without remorse and regret, we took a deep look at our values, held hands, and relinquished the slot in the private school to another “lucky” child.

After a few days at her new Kindergarten, my child was singing “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes” in flawless Nihongo. Gem, indeed.

And, as it turned out, a few days later our waitlisted school (and our original first choice) called up and said a slot was available. This was one of the few public “trophy schools” with deep parental involvement, a generous PTA fund, and a commitment to social justice — all within biking distance. An even more gemlike, if unhidden, gem.

When it comes down it it, we got lucky. Our little game of Kindergarten applications had a happy ending. My kid is slowly leveling up in most of the key attributes our family considers important. But it could just have easily have gone the other way, with us frustrated in a place that didn’t align with our family’s goals and values.

Now how can we express real-world point systems like this in Role Playing or other computer games in such a way that the decisions the player makes have the same deeply emotional impact, the same challenge to core values, the same very-personal definions of success or failure?

It would make for quite a little game.

Vinny’s Story Challenge II

tonycoffin2See the Story Challenge 1 post to catch up.

Story Challenge II began when Vinny wrote an editorial on Gamezebo how much he liked the Sopranos. I agreed — it was the first time a TV series had seemed downright novelistic.

I sent Vinny this great blog post I found about the meaning behind the Soprano’s final episode. It was the most literary analysis of a TV show I’d ever read, and did a great job making the case that the series ended with Tony being murdered in front of his family.

One song in the episode was particularly affecting: “It’s Alright, Ma, I’m Only Bleeding” by Bob Dylan. Turns out Vinny and I also share a passion for Bobby D lyrics.

And so that become our muse-object for challenge two.

His entry: Acapulco Blue.

Mine: Medium Rare.

The Original Story Challenge

When you’ve got a job and kid and distractions up the wazoo, challenge is just what I need to remind me that, beneath it all, I’m a writer.

It’s not the competition of a challenge itself that does it, but knowing that some other sentient soul in the universe has thrown down the gauntlet.

I was stuck in mid-novel hell (that sucker never did get completed).

My soul-brother, the once-novelist and now-prof Mark Cirino, issued a palette cleanser of a challenge to me. “Listen to Romance in Durango, by Bob Dylan,” he said. “If you still can’t come up with a story after hearing that, you’re toast.”

The story result is here. I’d rate it over 5 but way under 10.

As a gift for completing the story, crappy at it was, Mark gave me a CD (remember those?) of Desire, the album from whence this song came. It remains one of my favorite albums of all time.