Wednesday 31 August 2011

The Future of Television Part Two: Part One

You will never own the conversation

Most TV shows are pretty shitty. If, for some reason, you’re not happy watching the same eight episodes of Top Gear on an endless, hateful loop for the rest of time, then you’re either desperately trying to work out what it is that everyone seems to like so bloody much about The X Factor, or wondering when the next season of Father Ted is going to start.

Because most TV shows are pretty shitty, most people don’t really pay them very much attention, much like when someone on the street asks you for a few pennies to alleviate their life of inhuman squalor for a few precious moments and your offhand ‘no’ barely registers in your conscious as it flaps out of your mouth, your brain too busy dwelling how much you hate your stupid wife’s stupid face.

The producers of shows like The X-Factor and absolutely all US broadcasters already understand this idea well and make their programs as easy to follow as humanly possible. Twelve seconds of content can, will and indeed must be stretched out to fill an hour in a rolling sequence of what happened then and what’s going to happen next, flicking from past to future, never meeting the metaphysical challenge of living in the now. If you are trying to actually watch what’s going on, the process can be tortuous, but if the TV’s on while you’re manhandling food into your children or trying to persuade your boyfriend to maybe, occasionally brush his teeth, it still allows you to absorb the content of the show.

This is how people watch television

This is the state that most people are in when the television is on. They are not deeply engaged with engrossing, must-see content. They are filling up the few hours before bed in a way that ensures they don’t have to talk to anyone, or they’re talking incessantly over the television in a way that ensures they don’t have to listen to anyone.

The kind of TV that people do actually watch with attention and care, they are happy to watch with attention and care and probably aren’t splitting their attention with anything else, like loved ones or pets, while it’s on. 

I didn’t furtively check Twitter when The Trip was on. During Cash In The Attic, I hold my computer up to my TV so that it can see that I’m ignoring it, as some kind of shameful lesson.

I hate television

So two-screen TV is likely to sit in the Live and Ambient end of the TV spectrum. TV that you’re not so engrossed by that you have no spare attention. TV that’s maybe just a little bit shitty. Two-screen TV is all about enhancing that not-as-good-as-it-might-be TV with interaction. There are two basic kinds of interaction to consider, people interacting with the show and people interacting with each other about the show.

Most two-screen activity at the moment is the second kind, people talking about shows they’re watching on the communication network of their choice. Tweeting about how they hope the entire cast of Celebrity Big Brother are eaten by jackals on their way into the house. Posting on Facebook during Question Time about how ironic it is that the Secretary for Education looks like a paedophile. Anecdotally, I’d suggest most two-screen activity is looking up on Wikipedia which film you saw that guy in that one time but to be fair, that’s not what it says on Wikipedia.

Who wouldn't want to see her torn apart by wild dogs?

If people want to talk about what they’re seeing, there are already some great tools for doing so. Tools for communication in general. Talking about anything, not just TV. Putting into context those completely hilarious comments about how you hope a bunch of real people, with lives and families and hopes and dreams, are torn apart by wild animals for the pleasure of the viewing public. That part of social TV already exists, stop trying to re-invent it. I’m happy to state baldly, right now, that there will never be a TV based social communication platform that actually has any measure of success.

What can a TV-only communications platform actually give to the viewer? What do they get out of it? They already have their friends on Facebook, Twitter or G+ (ha, not really) and they can already talk to them about the TV they’re watching through those methods. Why would they want to move to a new platform?

If we're honest, isn’t the idea of a Social TV platform more about control for businesses than benefit for viewers? For data about who is watching what and what they think? People are already happy to talk already and maybe you, as a business, want to own that conversation, but do your viewers, your users? Probably not.

The TV business wants to make as much money as possible by slicing the rights to the show up as thinly as possible, and selling them to as many other businesses as possible. And the businesses who are willing to pay the most are businesses who want to have that content exclusively, so that they can use it as a stick to beat more customers into using their service.

Putting the desires of the business above the desires of the users is the same issue that makes piracy happen in the first place. The kind of users that have the technical savvy to be able to pirate the show they want, want them now, good enough quality and cheap. By making this content available in only a few places, dependant on geographical location and at wildly variable price points, the TV business is serving itself, not its users. It's a battle it is destined to eventually lose.

This failure to follow a user focussed approach also applies to trying to own the conversation about your content. Inspire that conversation, lead that conversation, monitor that conversation - these are all things you can and should do - but don’t even try to own it. You won’t beat Twitter at their own game. Leave it, walk away. It ain’t worth it.

Oranges are not the only fruit

The other kind of two screen, the kind where producers and broadcasters should be getting involved is the kind where the viewers are interacting with the show itself.

This is the bit where game design becomes useful, or indeed essential.

And it’s also the topic of my next post! 

Why did I even bother trying to make a blog? I should just write an incredibly depressing book and be done with it.

Actually, bananas are the only fruit

Thursday 18 August 2011

The Future Of Television Part One

Looking at the radio

According to old people, families would once gather around this thing they called a ‘radio’ to listen to a man tell them about the Queen in an accent that disregarded vowels entirely. “Hrs th Qn”, he might say. The radio was the centre of rapt attention, for through it, the world entered your house. It provided laughter, news, music, entertainment and information of all kinds, delivered wirelessly to your home. Then suddenly, BAM, television, right in the kisser. 

Remarkably, the television had a rudimentary screen on the side and by looking at it, observers could discern crude images of the Queen. This new glowing object was much more visually interesting, more stimulating than the inert, squawking, radio box. Thus the family’s attention moved from the radio to the television and no-one listened to the radio ever again.
What the fuck are you looking at?
Not really. Actually, people are still quite happy to listen to the radio. What radio did when it lost the attention battle to television, was retreat back to its lair for some biscuits, and decide that while it might not be as sexy as it once was, it still had a use. Radio had ambient powers, perfect as a thing to be enjoyed while baking a lemon-drizzle carrot cake, driving to Southampton in a Rover 75 or having a wee. This let it relax into a position of being really very good entertainment for people whose attentions, and specifically their eyes or hands, were somewhere else right now. And that was that and nothing in the world of entertainment technology would ever change again. 

Not really. Actually, since then, the rate of technological and cultural change has only increased. And the speed of change will keep increasing until the planet Earth sets on fire, crashes into the Sun and we all die. The internet happened and it was better than television. It took a while for everyone to realise this, but thanks to pornography, cats and pornography, they eventually decided that the internet was pretty much rad. 
Sweet, sweet pussy
Like radio before it, television is now facing the attention deficit. But statistics currently show that people spend more time watching television than ever before! They also spend longer on the internet than ever before! And longer playing computer games than ever before! 

How can this possibly be?

My television also serves as an excellent source of warmth

There are now three kinds of television. They are live TV, appointment TV and ambient TV. Live TV covers any event that is best watched live. Obviously this includes sport, but it also includes shows like Big Brother and X-Factor that are about viewer participation, teenage boys that look like girls and racism. This kind of TV is fine and dandy and pretty much has nothing to worry about. If you see more and more previously not-live TV becoming live, it's because then it’s an EVENT and people will WATCH the EVENT and then also the adverts. Mmm, adverts.

Appointment TV is the kind of TV you watch on catch-up or download from internets because it’s not on in your country yet because the companies involved in its production want to make more money. No, I don’t really understand that bit either. Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Louie. This kind of TV is probably better thought of as video. It has nothing to do with the concept of broadcast. Waiting for the new series of Game of Thrones to be broadcast on TV makes as much sense as waiting for a particular movie you want to see to be broadcast on TV. It’s been observed by many folks that the top TV dramas are better than most Hollywood blockbusters anyway, god damn it. The future of this kind of TV is likely to be much like the future of movies. I have no idea what that is! Why do I even bother?
Louis CK. Mad, broken, bad and a man.
Lastly, ambient TV is the kind of TV you put on in the background because you’re all alone in the world and if you didn’t get to hear another human being’s voice for even an entire minute, you’d bludgeon a screwdriver through your skull and into your brain, twisting it around until you collapsed face first into your coffee table, enveloped at last by the loving warmth of infinite death. While you’re staving off the inevitable realisation that not even you care that your life is a hateful series of painful nothings, you use the internet to look at pornography, read the Thundercats’ wikipedia page and play Angry Birds. The television bleats on and on, filling the air with soothing sounds while your eyes and hands are elsewhere.

With ambient TV, the television is now the radio, and the internet is now the television because as well as showing images of the Queen, it also lets you talk to the Queen and send her pictures of your cat wearing mittens.

I’m quite depressed now, can we stop please?

There’s a little bit of panic in television towers. Sure, things are fine right now, but for how long? Television people don’t want to be left behind. Like the radio people before them, there is a sense of fear, a sense of change and a sense of needing to be ahead of some curve that can’t even be seen. There’s also, much as it pains me to admit it, some kind of vague desire to make new and exciting things by multiplying TV by internet. Probably.

There are a near infinite number of buzzwords being banded about in varying amounts by various television people. Participation TV, Interactive TV, Connected TV, Smart TV, Internet TV, Social TV, So On TV and So Forth TV. What they all boil down to is a variety of ways that TV will continue to be fine in the future and no one need worry about having to skip their second Tuscan holiday of the year. What do they all mean? What is the future for TV?

Tune in, same time, same place, next week to find out! 

Friday 12 August 2011

I Blame Riots For Grand Theft Auto

Nee naw nee naw

The people who blame videogames for violence, especially for the sort of riot based violence the summer of 2011 specialised in are fucking idiots. I have no intention of getting into the giant clusterbomb of discussing why riots happen, or how you stop them because I don’t know the answers to any of those questions. I’m an awesome game designer, not a sociologist/politician/gobshite.

What I know about isn’t poverty or depravation or education or crime. What I know about is fun and games. See, the thing no-one really likes to talk about with riots is that they are, you know, a riot! They’re chaotic, social and, at the time, fun. They’re incredibly stupid and if you’re on the receiving end of one, completely terrifying, life-destroying and potentially fatal. But if you’re in one, in a huge, anonymous crowd of people being terribly naughty and doing all the things you kinda want to do but would never dare, then they are great. A carnival with free stuff and running and hiding and shouting and breaking stuff and standing still. Awesome!

Fuck the Police
We had a smashing time

Blaming games for riots, or indeed any anti-social or criminal activity gets the entire thing back to front. Riots aren’t fun because Grand Theft Auto is fun. Grand Theft Auto is fun because riots are fun. Doing what you’re not supposed to do, is fun. Smashing things up is fun. Setting things on fire, is fun. Running away from a slow, heavily armoured opponent is called kiting in computer games, is called fucking with the police during a riot and it too, is fun.

Most people would never actually do a riot because they understand that their bit of fun comes at an incredible and hideous cost to all concerned, same as most people would never commit murder or steal some shoes and run away or set fire to a policeman’s hat. But it’s not because we don’t want to do those things or because those things aren’t enjoyable at the time. It’s because we understand the implications and costs of our actions. 

Damn, it feels good to be a gangster
Computer games take those costs away and allow people to indulge those fantasies without the horrible implications, pain, death and moral vomit that they would otherwise cause. They isolate the fun part and present it alone, without care or worry for the player. Don’t blame the thrill of computer games for violence. Blame the thrill of violence for computer games.

Friday 5 August 2011

My Girlfriend Has No Strong Feelings about Xbox Live Arcade

It’s complicated...

So here’s a question. What would XBLA look like if it had the same userbase as Facebook? What kind of games would we see on XBLA if someone decided to give an XBox 360 to every single person on Facebook?

It is dangerous to go alone. Take this

Would it be the kind of games Facebook already plays host to - FarmVille, CityVille, ItPrintsMoneyVille? Would it be casual games like Peggle, Plants Vs Zombies, Menopause Villiage? Would it be exactly the same games we see now - From Dust, Bastion, Handstitched BombMetaphor?

In other words, would they be very simple games, would they be kinda simple games or would they be complex games? Is complexity a consequence of number of users? Can only games ‘that’ simple be ‘that’ popular? Why so many questions?

Thrown off games

Is complexity an issue in other media forms? No, not really. Soap operas and daily dramas, one of the most popular forms of television, have insanely complex, lengthy and convoluted plots, often dealing with a good number or arcs at one time, with endless reams of squawking characters switching relationships in a blurred and dizzying cacophony of emotion and spit.

The Harry Potter series is over a million words long. A million words. I don’t even know a million words! It’s a big, long, complicated story and it’s the most mainstream thing imaginable. Game of Thrones is even more complex has even more words and that seems to be doing ok for itself. And lets not get started on comic books. I do not even want to know how many Batmans there are.

Is it Batmans or Batmen?

So complexity is fine, if not desirable in other utterly mass-market media. So why are the most mass-market of computer games so simple?

You are terrible at this

Could it be that it’s not the simplicity of social games that makes them successful? In fact could it be that it’s the simplicity which results in their difficulties in retaining users? Been there, done that, bored now, what’s next? There’s anecdotal evidence that Zynga’s gargantuan advertising spend is all about retaining their existing users, not attracting new ones. Look at this wooga presentation all about their attempts to stop the drop off in users. Not all is well in paradise. Perhaps things in paradise are a bit too simple?

There are two other things that differentiate social games from traditional games. One is the inability to fail. Recalibrating the spectrum of the worst failure to the greatest success so that the greatest failure results in only a small reward instead of the computer throwing a bucket of pig faeces over the player, allows even those with the most dog-eared of brains to press buttons and see a pleasing sequence of lights and colours. Or indeed, those who have less hurty brains but just don’t give a fuck.

The other is the assumption that the player is, in gaming terms, a complete idiot. Having watched the girlfriend I haven’t mentioned since the title play the various games I’ve made her play and the various games she actually plays of her own accord, there’s one very clear difference. The games I want her to play have more buttons than she has fingers and   generally expect her to use pretty much all of them within the first ten minutes. The games she likes to play have one button and are usually pretty impressed when she manages to press that.

There are no words to describe this image

If you look at the complex but mainstream successes in other media, they also exhibit this combination of traits. Either they start very slowly and build up their complexity, or they start complex, but in a suitably self-aware fashion, reveling in their mystery and using it to draw the viewer in. You can’t fail at watching Game of Thrones. Even if you haven’t the faintest idea what’s going on, it’s over in an hour and there was probably an awesome fight and some naked people. The Machiavellian scheming and seemingly infinite character and story arcs can take their time to worm their way into your brain and reward you for watching more by giving you more reasons to watch.

So is simplicity actually clouding the picture? Is it not more a case that deep and difficult games are perfectly appropriate for a casual audience - in fact more desirable - but to achieve this, they need to make sense to everybody and anybody and keep moving forwards, regardless of how ‘well’ the player is playing?

So what I’m saying is, if you’re planning on making a Facebook game any time soon, please could you make one that is complicated, but has simple and well explained controls and no fail state? Then we can find out if I’m full of shit or not. Thanks. You’re the best.

Batman image stolen from Peter Madik
Other images just stolen.

Tuesday 2 August 2011

Everybody Is A Game Designer

Everybody is a storyteller

I was lucky enough to be at the Develop Evolve panel ‘New Stories for New Platforms’. I’d gone along expecting to leave at the end filled with seething rage. See I’m one of those people who doesn’t like stories in games. Not the kind that the designer tells the player. I’ve never found myself wishing a story had more game in it, so why would I want more story in my game?

The story the designers bake into a game is never as powerful, memorable or relevant as the story that players tell themselves. I can’t remember the story in Halo (I think it may have been set in space?) but I can regale you with a seemingly endless selection of anecdotes about that bit where I was killed by that guy or that thing with the buildings and that one time when I accidentally killed all of my own men with a single, inappropriate grenade.

This isn’t surprising. As they sip red wine and smoke cigarettes in an imaginary French bistro, clever people can often be heard suggesting in their serifed voices that our brains look at the world in terms of metaphors and stories anyway, whether we like it or not. The little person inside, narrating our lives is a real thing. If players are going to tell themselves stories anyway, it’s the designer’s job to make sure that those stories are great and many.

Much to my pleasure, the panel spent quite some time discussing this exact idea. Instead of setting out a linear narrative, Alexis Kennedy of Fail Better Games likened this approach to ‘fires in the desert’ an idea explained in this blog postThe designer should point the player off in the direction of the next major plot point - you’re secretly a woman, you’re your own brother, your arms are made of jam - but between these points, the player should be  encouraged to be their own storyteller. Because they’ll be doing it regardless. They talked about a bunch of other stuff too, but I’d stopped listening by that point.

Fires in the dessert

Deal or No Deal: Vendetta

If players tell themselves stories, we can make games that inspire the player to tell particular kinds of stories and we can make games that allow the player to tell themselves as many stories as possible. But games are about story enabling, not story telling. If you want your players to enjoy your game, remember your game and tell other people about your game, you should aim to get their inner voice to tell them the funniest, scariest or most exhilarating stories possible.

Game shows already understand this principle very well. Consider Deal or No Deal. The mechanics are simple to the point of barely being there at all, but the show is still embarrassingly easy to watch. That’s because the game gets out of the way and encourages the players to tell their own stories. The whole achingly dumb, yet effortlessly engaging rigmarole of luck being transformed by sheer will into tales of love, honour, betrayal, desperation, misery and exhilaration is the result of the designers thinking about how to make a bunch of great stories, very cheaply.

Nodeal Edmunds
Where all this gets terribly interesting is where we see that people don’t just tell themselves their own stories, they also play their own games. Don’t step on the cracks. A game we invent and play inside our own heads. We add a rule to walking and now walking is a game. Walking: Vendetta. Grinding through the washing up to unlock the cigarette at the end. Super Washing Up Man: Vendetta. Throwing your socks into the basket from great distance to avoid the penalty of having to walk across the room and put them in. Sock Ball Jam Washing Basket Adventureland: Vendetta.

I’m so meta, I shit myself

The recursive madness contained within all of this is that if we make our own games up, we must logically make up our own stories about our own games. Not only do we avoid stepping on cracks for high score, we internally narrate our progress through our attempts at crack avoidance. We pass on to ourselves tales of our triumph over the forces of washing up, we exalt in our now certain progress to the national finals thanks to that arcing long range sock dunk.

Children will turn anything into a toy, any toy into a game and any game into a story. Adults do just the same thing, they just don’t do the noises. At least not when anyone’s looking.

L-R Wonder Woman, Superman, Batman, Invisible Man
Play is a fundamentally creative act, this is completely unavoidable. Even if you have no interest in your players telling themselves metaphorical stories in your game, or adding their own rules to change the way the game works, they still will. You can embrace this, and make them love you, or you can ignore it and pin your players to a board like so many greasy, unwashed butterflies.