Friday 28 October 2011

The Importance Of Toys

What games aren’t

Definable. That’s one. The world of media is an infinite sphere of infinite dimensions and within it, we’ve laid out a few boundaries and declared them to be meaningful. We decided that if you wrote about news we would call it journalism. And if you printed those words, we’d call that a newspaper. Brilliant!

Really, in real life, you can educate people about what is happening in the world in pretty much any way you like. A poem, a drawing, interpretive dance, machinima, an FPS, billboards or mime. And you can mime about anything you like. Drugs, love, bison, firework safety, trigonometry or the phone-hacking scandal. The need to put things in boxes doesn’t make the boxes real.

I'm on a horse
When you’re seeking to tell a story or play a game or teach someone or sell something, you can take pretty much any combination of things from that gigantic toy-box and make a new thing. Some of those things will stretch the words ‘ill-advised’ further than they were designed to stretch, but some of them will sparkle and glow like hot, buttered diamonds.

Furthermore, when you make a new thing from two old things, the old things don’t just suddenly cease to exist. Largely, media forms don’t change, they grow. When photography happened, it didn’t stop people painting. In fact it probably made painting a lot more interesting, because now there was another, largely better and certainly more convenient way of fulfilling one of painting’s original uses. Now painting was free to go off and examine what it was to paint, rather than do an eerily accurate copy of a big man’s face. This was good for everybody in the whole world.

What games are

So, that said, I want to talk about what games are. I want to do that because I want to talk about what toys are. My favourite definition of games is ‘toys with rules’. It’s my favourite because it’s short and it works. It also ignores the fact that toys already have rules.

oh god how did this get here I am not good with computer
A ball has the rules of physics. If you drop it, it bounces. It doesn’t have rules like ‘if it bounces that high, you win one billion points’ but it does, none the less, have rules. It has intrinsic rules, the rules that define it as a ball. If you get a certain kind of ball and give it to 22 grown-men on a big field, and only let them kick it, add goalposts and a man with a whistle and some casual racism, you have the game of football. And well done you.

The ball is a toy and it has intrinsic rules. Football is a game, that results from adding extrinsic rules to the ball’s intrinsic rules. So we can now say that games are ‘toys with extrinsic rules’. 

To infinity, and beyond

'I'm just a toy. A stupid little insignificant toy.'

This is how we think of toys. We think of toys as childish playthings. Toys are afforded even less social currency and clout than games, and games are rubbish. I collect games and from a distance they look a bit like books, so I can let people come inside my house occasionally. If I had endless shelves of action figures and toy cars, then visitors would either presume that they would never be allowed to leave or, at best, that they would never be coming back.

‘Whoa. Hey. Wait a minute. Being a toy is a lot better than being a...a Space Ranger.’

The thing is, much like gamification’s battle between intrinsic rewards (yay!) and extrinsic rewards (boo!), toys’ intrinsic rules make them fabulously good fun to play with. Game makers - despite being toy makers by default - want to make games. Often times, the game bit, the extrinsic rules bit, overwhelms that first point, that crafting of a supremely awesome toy. Again, like gamification, it’s concentrating on the extrinsic rewards (boo!), not the intrinsic ones (yay!).

Guess I got my swagger back
Toys need to get much more respect than they do. People shouldn’t be so keen to say they are game designers or that they want to make games, and should spend their time making beautiful toys. After all, what would you rather have contributed to the world of games, Zelda or dice? Grand Theft Auto or the pack or cards? In a thousand years, people will still be throwing balls around, they are far less likely to be playing Mass Effect 2.

It’s toys that make play happen, it’s rules that make toys into games. While there’s skill in both, making great toys is vastly under-appreciated. The battle over ‘are games art’ has been won and now they are. But if they are, then toys are an even greater art.

I’m off to change my job title, brb.

Wednesday 19 October 2011

TV Platforms, Not TV Programs

Split attention is fine oh look a pretty flower

Recap. People do stuff while the TV is on. They also to do stuff while the radio is on. They have always done this. It used to be books and newspapers and phone calls and bare-knuckle boxing, now it’s probably internets. The thing that has changed isn’t behaviour, it’s the nature of the device that is distracting people from the telly. The interactive nature of that device means that now the telly people can tempt attention back onto their programs, and thus the delicious advertising that pays for the whole kit and caboodle. Two-screen TV is born.

Lou Dobbs, chilling out

As we batten down the hatches and prepare for a slew of two screen programs of wildly variable quality and vision, one of the many questions troubling those producing such content is how to deal with the issue of split attention. Even if your test subjects are engaging with your TV show, their attention is still split, you just have responsibility for both of the things they are looking at.

If we’ve managed to convince you to synchronise what you’re doing with your personal device with what’s happening on the large glowing rectangle on the wall, how do we then artfully sashay your attention from the small screen and back to the large screen? How do we manage your attention across two devices?


Sometimes this isn’t a problem. In most interactive (the show listens and talks back) rather than participatory (the TV just listens) cases, it will make complete sense for you to be looking one way or the other. If there is a quiz, then you will look at the screen with the question on it, look at the screen where you input your answer, then look at the screen which tells you if you were right or not. That’s not managing, that’s just a natural result of the format.

If you are looking at a more participatory format, one where there isn’t a direct, logical reason to look at one particular screen baked into the format from the get-go, then things become a bit more complicated. This is when split attention and managing that split can start to loom large into the sights of producers.

"If we don't move, he can't see us..."

The solution here is to forget about guiding attention and instead to allow that attention to wander. The behaviour you are seeking to piggy-back by making your two screen product in the first place is that of varying, split, wandering attention. So fit your product into that. If people wanted to do one thing at once, they would be doing one thing at once. Two screen will be more about choice and variety than it will be about a carefully curated experience

Let people pick and choose what they want to interact with and when. Watching TV is a largely passive, sit-back experience. If you want people to move beyond that and actively get involved, you need to fit those moments into your overall experience in a way that lets them choose when to get involved and how to get involved.

Actually, you just can’t please all of the people, ever

The fundamental point behind this is that you can’t make a TV show or two-screen experience that’s great for everyone, because you can’t make any product that’s great for everyone. We are all different people with different desires. Well, except that one guy. If you want to make your show more appealing to more people you need to make it more different, to do different things and let people get to the world you’ve created in as many ways as possible.

What good are words when I have no mouth to scream?

Obviously, doing that takes time and it takes money. And you don’t have either of those things. This stuff should be a profit centre, not a cost centre, right? If you want to make plenty of content around your show, let people access it in lots of different ways and hopefully make money doing so, that’s going to require a lot of experimentation, a lot of up-front cost. So what to do?

The logical end-game for that line of thinking is to make your program into a platform. The big successes of our time are not products, they are platforms. They have APIs and they are open to other people adding onto them. Facebook, Twitter and iOS leap out as great examples. None of these companies make any content at all. 80% of all Twitter content is accessed through third-party applications.

Come on in, the water’s mutually beneficial

What is needed is a platform approach to program, to content, to brands. There’s no question that the more ways to access your ‘thing’ the more people will access it and there’s no question that doing that all in house is prohibitively expensive. So don’t do it in house. Open it up. Let anyone who wants to contribute to the world of your ‘thing’ make a ‘thing’ using all of your ‘things’.

Fascinating. Please, do go on.
By allowing access to the inner bits of your program/brand/content to developers and entrepreneurs, you’re exponentially increasing your chance of discovering really great ways to get your audience more engaged or engaging a new audience. Stop thinking that great ideas for your program/brand/content can only come through the laborious and arcane commissioning, tendering, pitching process. Use the good bit of capitalism and let the market decide what a good idea looks like, not a clever person in a room deciding WHAT IS RIGHT and WHAT IS WRONG. That person will never be as smart as everyone.

Not only is this shifting the discovery, the R&D costs and thinking onto others, it’s still letting you benefit from its successes. And via the power of the brand, it’s helping the creators get access to audiences they would never have otherwise managed.

Let your IP free. Create platforms, not content. 

Tuesday 4 October 2011

On Telification

I am sorry I said that word, I really am

Gamification is great and all (it isn’t) but it’s all a bit yesterdays news, don’t you think? ‘I remember gamification’ say the elder statesmen of the media world ‘and it was rubbish’ they continue.

Well the problem with it was that it had precisely fuck all to do with games. It was, as Margaret Robertson so eloquently put it, pointsification. Shaving the most insignificant layer of fluff from the exposed flanks of gaming’s prone body and magically exchanging the meaningless word gamification for the meaningless word engagement.

Do you do group discounts?

Of course for real gamification, actually learning from games and applying their sense of agency, loss, learning and self-improvement to anything that stays still long enough, the future is as rosy as it ever was. Those that really understand games are still rare, but they get less rare by the day and their influence will be felt everywhere. Gamification is dead, long-live gamification.

And so to telification. Adding television-like elements to things that are not television. This one can’t possibly get wrongly understood, right?

What this means for television

There are two kinds of broadly interactive television, Participation TV and Interactive TV. 

Participation TV is where the show invites contributions from the viewer, but doesn’t necessarily give anything back. Big Brother and The X Factor both fall into this category, inviting the viewer/player to give their opinion and vote for their favourite, but with no guarantee that their views will be reflected in the show itself. The Million Pound Drop also falls into this category, with the playalong elements, while mentioned as statistics, having no effect whatsoever on the outcome of the show.

This can be seen as the gamification of television. It’s adding game-like thinking to television. In all these cases, the show came first and the game came later. The TV show is by far the most important part of the equation and the game-like elements are there to get the player invested in that show, not to give them a meaningful game-like experience. It works very well, largely because it retains the essential TV experiences of passive, sit-back, almost ambient entertainment. 

Interactive TV is where the show reacts to every viewers input individually. It reflects the players actions back at them and alters their experience of the show accordingly. It is a vanishingly tiny sector of the TV market, in fact the only example I can think of is Dutch show ‘Intuition’. (Disclaimer - we make this show) That is undoubtedly going to change, as more broadcasters decide to take a risk with shows that put the focus on the audience rather than the show itself.

"The Rubik's Cube Show" never got the respect it deserved

This is the telification of games. This is starting with a game and adding in the television elements until you have something that looks enough like a TV show to persuade a broadcaster to pop it on their channel. 

These kind of shows won’t necessarily make for very good television. The problem with making them work is that either the game will make demands of the show which will make the show suffer or the show will make demands of the game which will make the game suffer. Seemingly simple factors such as pacing will be pulled in two totally different directions by the need to provide a good television (slower) or a good gaming (faster) experience.

Getting Interactive TV right will be extremely difficult. It is a whole new type of show and the rewards for getting it right will be vast, but in order to do that, television and game thinking will have to be brought to bear in very even measure. Only teams who can bring a genuine understanding of television and a genuine understanding of games together will be able to make this kind of thing work.

What this means for games

But what if we ignore the television entirely and apply telification to games that intend to remain games? I don’t mean the sort of EA Sports presentationism, where game and TV producers are locked in a dizzying race to make the art of sports presentation so bombastic it literally hurts your face when you look at it. And I don’t mean the idea of episodic content, seasons of content, a ball fumbled so expertly by Valve with their Half Life updates that no-one even knows where it is anymore.

FACT: The Queen is a huge fan of Frankie Boyle

Television has three relevant strengths. It is linear, it is broadcast and it is passive. Games can be linear in the same sense that a single television program is linear, but they are not linear in the same sense that a television channel is linear. Games are broadcast in the sense that many people may be playing the same game on the same server, but not in the sense of many people doing *exactly* the same thing at the same time. And games are passive in the sense of having cut-scenes, but even those bits aren’t truly passive, as you’re actually mashing every single button on the pad at that point, to try and dispel their dreadful interlude. 

These are genuine strengths, do not underestimate them. Television, in case you hadn’t noticed, is a rather popular way of passing the time. How can games take these strengths and use them to forward their own agenda. How do you make linear, broadcast, passive games? And if you could, if you did, would you even call them games anymore?

I think you can and I think we will, but I don’t know what we’ll call them when we get there.

Telification. It’s going to be rad.