Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Received my PhD today!

Middlesbrough, UK

Teesside University logoToday I got the good news that my PhD has been approved by the School of Computing at the University of Teesside. It has been a long hard road, but I got there in the end. I originally applied to join the program in the fall of 2006, so it took nearly seven years.

The title of my thesis is Resolutions to Some Problems in Interactive Storytelling, and you can download a copy in a ZIP archive here. It's in two volumes, both in PDF format. Volume 1 is the actual text itself. Volume 2 contains the appendices, which consist of articles and lectures I gave over the course of my career.

For those who are interested, this is the abstract:

This thesis addresses a number of related problems that have long been the subject of debate among theorists and practitioners of interactive storytelling. Foremost among them are two, the Problem of Internal Consistency and the Problem of Narrative Flow, that are caused by a perceived tension between a player’s desire for interactive freedom and agency, and an interactive story designer’s ability to offer a coherent story-like experience. The thesis shows how the problems arise from faulty, and often unstated, assumptions about what the ideal interactive storytelling experience should be like. I propose a new schema for understanding the relationship between the player and the designer, and for understanding the player’s role in creating his own experience. According to this schema, the player accepts a degree of responsibility for the coherence of his own experience, which is directly proportional to the degree of freedom that the software offers him. The problems are thus resolved.
The thesis also discusses a variety of other issues related to interactive storytelling that I have considered over the years: the fact that players are often expected to enact a character who knows more about the story world than the player actually does, which I call the Problem of Amnesia; the overloading of the term conflict; a false analogy between dramatic tension and gameplay tension; an idea called a credibility budget, which I suggest as a possible feature of a future automated story-generation system; some emotional consequences for players that attend implementation of agency by various means; and certain challenges that face development of a semiotics for video games. 
The thesis concludes with a template and guide to writing a requirements specification for interactive storytelling experiences. I present arguments for the value of requirements specifications as design tools both for practitioners and for students.

Friday, July 27, 2012

A Call to Arms for Decent Men

As many of you know, I have been writing a column called The Designer's Notebook for the Gamasutra game developers' webzine ever since it was founded in 1997. This month for the first time, they declined to run one of my articles in the form that I wrote it. They wanted major changes, and I refused to make them. As a result, I'm self-publishing the article instead, although I still consider it to be part of the Designer's Notebook series. It follows below. Please note that it uses strong langauge.

Please feel free to link to or republish this article with attribution and without any changes. I am sharing it under a Creative Commons license, which is visible at the bottom.

Normally I write for everybody, but this month's column is a call to arms, addressed to the reasonable, decent, but much too silent majority of male gamers and developers.

Guys, we have a problem. We are letting way too many boys get into adulthood without actually becoming men. We're seeing more and more adult males around who are not men. They're as old as men, but they have the mentality of nine-year-old boys. They're causing a lot of trouble, both in general and for the game industry specifically. We need to deal with this.

Why us? Because it's our job to see to it that a boy becomes a man, and we are failing.

When we were little boys we all went through a stage when we said we hated girls. Girls had "cooties." They were silly and frilly and everything that a boy isn't supposed to be. We got into this stage at about age seven, and we left it again at maybe 10 or 11.

Then puberty hit and, if we were straight, we actively wanted the company of girls. We wanted to "go with" them, date them, and eventually we wanted to fall in love and live with one, maybe for the rest of our lives. That's the way heterosexual boys are supposed to mature, unless they become monks.

My point is, you're supposed to leave that phase of hating girls behind. Straight or gay, you're supposed to grow the hell up.

What might be temporarily tolerable in a boy when he's nine is pretty damned ugly when he's fifteen and it's downright psychopathic when he's twenty. Instead of maturing into a man's role and a man's responsibilities, a lot of boys are stuck at the phase of hating girls and women. The boys continue to treat them like diseased subhumans right through adolescence and into adulthood.

Men have more power than women: financially, politically, and physically. What distinguishes a real man from a boy is that a man takes responsibility for his actions and does not abuse this power. If you don't treat women with courtesy and respect -- if you're still stuck in that "I hate girls" phase -- then no matter what age you are, you are a boy and not entitled to the privileges of adulthood.
  • If you want to have some private little club for males only -- like keeping women out of your favorite shooter games -- you're not a man, you're an insecure little boy. A grown-up man has no problem being in the company of women. He knows he's a man.
  • If you freak out when a girl or a woman beats you in a game, you're not a man, you're a nine-year-old boy. A man doesn't need to beat a woman to know he's a man. A man is strong enough to take defeat in a fair game from anybody and move on.
  • If your masculinity depends on some imaginary superiority over women, then you don't actually have any. Manliness comes from within, and not at the expense of others.
  • And if you threaten or abuse women, verbally or physically, you are not a man. You're a particularly nasty specimen of boy. 
When this puerile mentality is combined with the physical strength and sexual aggressiveness of an older boy or an adult male, it goes beyond bad manners. It's threatening and anti-social, and if those boys are permitted to congregate together and support each other, it becomes actively dangerous. Yes, even online.

Of course, I don't mean all boys are like this. Most of them get out of the cootie phase quickly and grow up just fine. But far too many don't. If we don't do something about these permanent nine-year-olds pretty soon, they're going to start having boys of their own who will be just as bad if not worse, and life will not be worth living. Life is already not worth living on Xbox Live Chat.

In addition to the harm they do to women -- our mothers, our sisters, our daughters -- these full-grown juveniles harm us, too. A boy who refuses to grow up has lousy social skills, a short attention span, and a poor attitude to work. Furthermore, all men -- that's you and me, bro -- get the blame for their bad behavior. And we deserve it, because we've been sitting on our butts for too long. We let them be bullies online and get away with it.

Some of you might think it's sexist that I'm dumping this problem on us men. It isn't; it's just pragmatic. Women can not solve this problem. A boy who hates girls and women simply isn't going to pay attention to a woman's opinion. The only people who can ensure that boys are taught, or if necessary forced, to grow up into men are other men.

Let's be clear about something else. This is not a political issue. This is not a subject for debate, any more than whether your son is allowed to swear at his mother or molest his sister is a subject for debate. There is no "other point of view." The real-world analogy is not to social issues but to violent crime. Muggers don't get to have a point of view.

So how do we change things?

First, we need to serve as positive examples. With the very little boys, we need to guide them gently but firmly out of the cootie phase. To the impressionable teenagers, we must demonstrate how a man behaves and how he doesn't. Be the change you want to see. Use your real name and your real picture online, to show that you are a man who stands behind his words. Of course, you can't prove your name is real, but it doesn't matter. If you consistently behave with integrity online, the message will get across.

Secondly, we men need to stand up for courtesy and decency online. We can't just treat this as a problem for women (or blacks, or gays, or anybody else the juvenile bullies have in their sights). Tell them and their friends that their behavior is not acceptable, that real men don't agree with them, that they are in the minority. Say these words into your headset: "I'm disappointed in you. I thought you were a man, not a whiny, insecure little boy." Don't argue or engage with them. Never answer their questions or remarks, just repeat your disgust and disapproval. Assume the absolute moral superiority to which you are entitled over a bully or a criminal.

Finally, we need to put a stop to this behavior. It's time for us to force the permanent nine-year-olds to grow up or get out of our games and forums. It's not enough just to mute them. We need to build the infrastructure that precludes this kind of behavior entirely -- Club Penguin has already done it for children -- or failing that, we have to make the bullies pay a price for their behavior. Appealing to their better nature won't work; bullies have none. We do not request, we do not debate, we demand and we punish.

I have some specific suggestions, from the least to the most extreme.

  1. Mockery. In 1993 50 Ku Klux Klansmen marched through Austin, Texas. Five thousand anti-Klan protesters turned up to jeer at them. Best of all, several hundred lined the parade route and mooned the Klan in waves. The media ate it up, and the Klan looked ridiculous. The hurt that they wanted to cause was met not with anger but with derision. The juvenile delinquents are just like the Klan: anonymous in their high-tech bedsheets, and threatening, but in fact, a minority. Let's use our superior numbers and metaphorically moon the boys who can't behave. They're social inadequates, immature losers. Let's tell them so, loud and clear, in front of their friends.
  2. Shut them up. The right to speak in a public forum should be limited to those who don't abuse it. James Portnow suggested this one in his Extra Credits video on harassment. Anyone who persistently abuses others gets automatically muted to all players. The only players who can hear them are those who choose to unmute them. Or another of James' suggestions: New users don't even get the right to talk. They have to earn it, and they keep it only so long as they behave themselves. This means a player can't just create a new account to start spewing filth again if they've been auto-muted. Build these features into your games.
  3. Take away their means. If you're the father of a boy who behaves like this online, make it abundantly clear to him that it is unmanly and unacceptable, then deny him the opportunity to do it further. We don't let nine-year-olds misuse tools to hurt other people. Take away his cell phone, his console and his computer. He can learn to behave like a man, or he can turn in his homework in longhand like a child.
  4. Anonymity is a privilege, not a right. Anonymity is a double-edged sword. A limited number of people need it in certain circumstances: children, crime victims, whistleblowers, people discussing their medical conditions, political dissidents in repressive regimes. But those people normally don't misuse their anonymity to abuse others; they're protecting themselves from abuse. I think the default setting in all online forums that are not intended for people at risk should require real names. After a user has demonstrated that they are a grown-up, then offer them the privilege of using a pseudonym. And take it away forever if they misuse it. I haven't used a nickname for years except in one place where all the readers know who I am anyway. Has it made me more careful about what I say? You bet. Is that a good thing? Damn right it is.
  5. Impose punishments that are genuinely painful. This suggestion is extreme, but I feel it's both viable and effective. To play subscription-based or pay-as-you-go ("free-to-play-but-not-really") games, most players need to register a credit card with the game's provider. Include a condition in the terms of service that entitles the provider to levy extra charges for bad behavior. Charge $5 for the first infraction and double it for each subsequent one. This isn't all that unusual; if you smoke in a non-smoking hotel room, you are typically subject to a whopping extra charge for being a jerk. 

Now I'm going to address some objections from the very juvenile delinquents I've been talking about -- if any of them have read this far.

  • "What's the big deal? It's harmless banter. If you can't stand the heat, get out of the game." To start with, it's our game, not yours, and we get to decide what's acceptable behavior. You meet our standards or you get out. Apart from that, nothing that is done with intent to cause hurt is harmless. The online abuse I have seen goes way beyond banter. Threats are not harmless, they are criminal acts.
  • "But this is part of gamer culture! It's always been like this!" No, it is not. I've been gaming for over 40 years, and it has not always been like this. Yours is a nasty little subculture that arrived with anonymous online gaming, and we're going to wipe it out.
  • "This is just political correctness." Invoking "political correctness" is nothing but code for "I wanna be an asshole and get away with it." I'll give you a politically-incorrect response, if you like: fuck that. It's time to man up. You don't get to be an asshole and get away with it. 
  • "You're just being a White Knight and trying to suck up to women." I don't need to suck up to women, thanks; unlike you, I don't have a problem with them, because I'm a grown man.
  • "Women are always getting special privileges." Freedom from bullying is a right, not a privilege, and anyway, that's bullshit. Males are the dominant sex in almost every single activity on the planet. The only areas that we do not rule are dirty or underpaid jobs like nursing and teaching. Do you want to swap? I didn't think so.
  • "It's hypocrisy. How come they get women-only clubs and we don't get men-only clubs?" Because they're set up for different reasons, that's why. Male-only spaces are about excluding women from power, and making little boys whose balls evidently haven't dropped feel special. Female-only spaces are about creating a place where they are safe from vermin.
  • "But there's misandry too!" Oh, and that entitles you to be a running sore on the ass of the game community? Two wrongs don't make a right.. I'll worry about misandry when large numbers of male players are being hounded out of games with abuse and threats of violence. If a few women are bigoted against men, you only have to look in the mirror to find out why.
  • "Free speech!" The oldest and worst excuse for being a jerk there is. First, you have no right to free speech in privately-owned spaces. Zero. Our house, our rules. Second, with freedom comes the responsibility not to abuse it. People who won't use their freedoms responsibly get them taken away. And if you don't clean up your act, that will be you. 
OK, back to the real men for a few final words.

This is not about "protecting women." It's about cleaning out the sewers that our games have become. This will not be easy and it will not be fun. Standing up to these little jerks will require the same courage from us that women like Anita Sarkeesian have already shown. We will become objects of hatred, ridicule, and contempt. Our manhood will be questioned. But if we remember who we are and stand strong together, we can beat them. In any case we won't be threatened with sexual violence the way women are. We have it easier than they do.

It's time to stand up. If you're a writer, blogger, or forum moderator, please write your own piece spreading the message, or at least link to this one. I also encourage you to visit Gamers Against Bigotry, sign the pledge, are share it.

Use your heavy man's hand in the online spaces where you go -- and especially the ones you control -- to demand courtesy and punish abuse. Don't just mute them. Report them, block them, ban them, use every weapon you have. (They may try to report us in return. That won't work. If you always behave with integrity, it will be clear who's in the right.)

Let's stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the women we love, and work with, and game with, and say, "We're with you. And we're going to win."

A Call to Arms for Decent Men by Ernest W. Adams is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License

Friday, June 29, 2012

Game Mechanics: Advanced Game Design has been published!

Joris Dormans and I are proud to announce the publication of our new book, Game Mechanics: Advanced Game Design. 

Learn how to get it at a 35% discount at the bottom of this note! ]

Game mechanics are the hardest aspect of game design to talk about and to teach. Because mechanics create gameplay, they are at the heart of all games, but they aren't flashy like character or level design, nor creative in the way that storytelling is. We have no common vocabulary for them, and they're hard to visualize.

Our book aims to change all that.

People who know me well know that I'm not fond of hype, but I genuinely believe this book could revolutionize the way we teach game design and maybe even the way we do it in the game industry. Really. I'm certainly changing the way 

“I’ve been waiting for a book like this for ten years: packed with game design goodness that tackles the science without undermining the art.”  — Richard Bartle, co-author of the first MMORPG

Starting with some ideas in my earlier book, Fundamentals of Game Design, Joris Dormans created a visual language for diagramming game mechanics, and best of all, a free tool for drawing them and simulating them in real time. It's called Machinations, and the moment I saw it I knew that we had to write a book together. Machinations lets you visualize your ideas and test them instantly, without a single line of code. No fiddling with Excel. Just drag, drop, and run. We show how to use it, step by step.

Our book discusses how to prototype and tune mechanics. How to turn fixed, scripted progression into emergent systems. How to use random numbers. How to integrate mechanics design with level design. How to give meaning to mechanics in non-entertainment ("serious") contexts, and much more. As well as making use of the Machinations Tool, we also introduce a 
library of design patterns that gives a name and above all an operational diagram of each pattern. The library includes categories for engines of growth, friction, and escalation, plus additional mechanisms that create stability cycles, arms races, trading systems, and many others.

The Dynamic Engine pattern shown in the Machinations visual framework, demonstrating how investing an engine's output in upgrades improves its productivity -- a classic positive feedback loop. This is one simple example of hundreds in the book.

Where to buy it or find out more:

New Riders (our publisher's) page for the book.
(If you buy it there, enter the coupon code GAMEMECHANICS during checkout and save 35%!)
A free sample chapter (chapter 4, Internal Economy) in PDF format.

University professors, order a free exam copy here.

My own web page about Game Mechanics, which includes a detailed table of contents.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Good cheer to you for the Winter Solstice!

Winter solstice in Denmark, 2010
Winter Solstice in Denmark, 2010. Photo courtesy of Ingrid0804 on Flickr, Fair Use only.

Hello again, family, friends and colleagues! Almost every religion on Earth celebrates a midwinter festival of some kind, and even for those of us with none at all, the turning of the year brings new light and new life. I wish you good cheer and health -- or as the Anglo-Saxons said, waes hael!

It has been a busy year for me (I say that every year, don't I?). I consulted for several different companies and did a bit of corporate training (none of which I'm allowed to talk about, of course). On the academic side, I wound up my five-year Royal Academy of Engineering grant to teach at the University of Ulster's School of Computing and Intelligent Systems in Northern Ireland, and increased my contribution at the University of Gotland in Sweden. I now fly there seven times a year to teach and mentor undergraduates, and the most enjoyable part is about to begin: They'll all form into teams and build games throughout the spring, and I get to offer sage wisdom. The University of Gotland has just agreed in principle to merge with the University of Uppsala, Sweden's oldest and most prestigious institution of higher education, so that's very exciting -- it's sort of the equivalent of a technical school merging with Harvard or Oxford.

I'm also working on a new book. In September of 2010, I met a young Dutchman named Joris Dormans at the G-Ameland festival. Joris has built a great simulation tool called Machinations that lets game designers diagram and simulate game mechanics symbolically, without doing any programming. I was so impressed with him and his work that I persuaded him to write a new textbook with me. We signed it with Peachpit Press a couple of months ago and hope to have it out for next fall. The title will be Game Mechanics: Advanced Game Design.

I also updated my PhD thesis as requested, and sent it off to my advisers to look over. It will take a while longer before it goes to the examiners for their final verdict. Anyway, I'm hoping that it will be done and dusted sometime this spring. In the upcoming year I'll be attending the Global Game Jam for the first time, in Leeuwarden, the Netherlands, and of course I'm going to Game Developers' Conference as always (although I don't have a talk there this time -- first time in 21 years!).

All the best to you and yours for a happy Hanukkah, Christmas, Yule, or however you celebrate!

The Glouscestershire Wassail
Wassail! wassail! all over the town,
Our toast it is white and our ale it is brown;
Our bowl it is made of the white maple tree;
With the wassailing bowl, we'll drink to thee.

(Hear it sung)

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Back to Portugal again!

Instituto Superior Técnico, Lisbon, Portugal

IST logoA few months back I got an invitation from Sharon Strover at the University of Texas at Austin to deliver a lecture in Portugal—UT has a collaborative arrangement with the Instituto Superior Técnico, where I taught in 2008. After some lobbying from Professor Rui Prada at the IST, the lecture turned into a lecture and two game design workshops. He invited me last time and liked it enough for me to do a little extra work on this visit as well.
My first event was a lecture on Monday evening, so I should have had most of the day free to sightsee. Unfortunately PowerPoint decided to corrupt my lecture slides that morning, so I spent most of the day in my hotel room fixing it, as well as updating my lecture a bit. Rui met me in the evening and we walked to the Ordem dos Engenheiros, the Portuguese Engineering Society. It's a little like the IEEE crossed with the Bar Association; you can't do civil engineering, or any other sort in which lives may be at stake, in Portugal unless you're a member. (Ordem dos Engenheiros literally means the Order of Engineers, which makes being an engineer sound like a title of nobility. And why not? Engineers have better qualifications for their work than hereditary nobles do, anyway.)
There I was introduced to Vasco Amaral, my host at the Ordem, and delivered "The Future of Computer Entertainment to 2050" to a crowd of about 50 people. There were cookies and coffee afterward, and the Order made me a gift of a particularly fine pen and pencil set.
IST building interiorThat night I went to dinner at Brasserie Flo, a Paris-based chain of restaurants that I had discovered in Amsterdam and particularly enjoyed. Portugal is famous for its fish and Flo did not disappoint. In fact, I ate fish or shellfish at more than half the meals I had there.
The next day I took a taxi out to the beautiful IST campus in Porto Salvo, a big curving building that feels very new and high-tech. I met some old friends there and gave my Fundamental Principles of Game Design workshop to a crowd of about 50. Rui told me that 80 people had wanted to come, but he had to turn the extras away so that we wouldn't have too many teams. It's flattering to have my workshops so well-attended, but of course I'm sorry we didn't have room for any more. The ones who made it in seemed to have a good time...
Workshop participants laughing.
They're seldom actually this funny...

Lunch was fish (of course) in a cafeteria that is either subsidized or the best deal in Portugal—a three-course meal and drink for €5.50. In the afternoon the participants presented their games, including a distinctly dark one about running the CIA. The player works his or her way up through the ranks and has to make choices along the way about whether to further their own career or the nation's interests, which don't always coincide. Opportunities for office politics abound, with potentially lethal results for some of the agents in the field. In the end the player discovers that the CIA is actually being run by a traitor, an idea that inevitably reminded me of Kim Philby et al.

Lisbon World War I memorial.Tuesday I gave my Character Design workshop. Normally I ask the participants to design an action/adventure avatar based on a fictitious name and job—Aristides Mykonos, sponge diver, for example. However, for one team I did something different.
Not far outside my hotel I discovered a war memorial commemorating Portugal's participation in the First World War. Unaware that Portugal had been in the First World War at all, I did some research online and discovered the amazing story of Aníbal Augusto Milhais, "Soldier Millions." He was a farmer drafted into the war, and at the Battle of La Lys, he covered a Portuguese and Scottish retreat all by himself with one machine gun until he ran out of bullets. The Germans assumed that his was a heavily defended position and went around it rather than trying to take it, leaving him behind their lines. He subsequently escaped, rescued a Scottish officer drowning in a swamp, and made it back to Allied territory, where he was made a national hero—but only after the Scottish officer had told his story for him; Milhais had not talked about his adventure.
Anibal MilhaisI thought that Soldier Millions was a perfect candidate for an action/adventure character and told one team to look him up and build a game around him. No one on the team had heard of him, but by the end of the workshop, at least 50 people knew his name and story. The team designed a somewhat satirical shooter: the more people he shoots, the bigger his mustache gets.
That evening I went to dinner with some of the faculty and about 8 workshop participants in Bairro Alto, the restaurant district of Lisbon. Lisbon is a city of many steep hills and I took the funicular railway to ascend the 265 meters required. It was a great evening of wine and good conversation (and octopus), and I really hope to do it again sometime. At the end of the evening it started to rain hard, and a number of Indian umbrella-sellers mysteriously appeared out of nowhere. Entrepreneurship at its finest: find a need and fill it.
Thanks, all!
Elevador Glória. Elevador Glória, one of three funicular railways in Lisbon.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Animex and a New Workshop for Animex Pro!

Middlesbrough and Newcastle, UK

My friend and colleague Gabby Kent invited me to come speak at the Animex animation festival again this year, as I have several times in the past. Animex takes place at the University of Teesside in Middlesbrough, UK, where I'm a visiting fellow and PhD candidate. She warned us that the budget had been cut back sharply thanks to the recession, and we speakers wouldn't be staying in the sumptuous hotel that we've enjoyed in the past. It didn't matter, though -- in my opinion the event was better than ever.

Gabby is responsible for Animex Game, the video-game-oriented first two days of the event. I could only stay for the first day, but I learned a lot. I heard a great talk from Florian Zender of Spec Ops:The Line about the challenges of implementing a simulated sand avalanche in a game. Very small solid particles are still a problem for us, because they don't just flow to the lowest point like liquid -- a large sand dune slumps down and stops as a lower, more spread-out dune. Sometimes it looked a bit too much like Silly Putty or pancake batter.

Ken Tateishi of LucasArts gave an enlightening talk on how level design has changed from the days of Dark Forces (1995) to The Force Unleashed (2008). (He's not allowed to talk about anything more recent.) Ken said that the traditional approach of thinking up a series of levels and then writing a story to link them together is no longer used at LucasArts; they write a story that contains opportunities for activity and then create those opportunities as levels.

On Tuesday I left Middlesbrough and traveled up to Newcastle at the invitation of Christine Wilson, who runs an offshoot of Animex aimed at the business community, called Animex Pro. Christine asked me to create a new game design workshop specifically for this group, about casual free-to-play games. I did some research and wrote a lecture that discusses how various game business models compare to each other, and how casual free-to-play games monetize their gameplay. Then I created a worksheet that challenges the participants to devise a game based on a theme that I give them, creating an internal economy that should produce a revenue flow for the publisher. In addition I asked them to consider what kinds of real-world companies might be interested in advertising or co-branding with the game.

Animex Pro Conference, Live Theatre, February 9th 2011
One of the participants explains his game idea at Animex Pro.
Photo courtesy of the Institute of Digital Innovation.

I was a little concerned about exactly who was going to turn up to this workshop, because the event was aimed at executives and I didn't know if they would want to do game design. However, as it happened most of the attendees were in-the-trenches developers, so it went well. I divided them into teams of two or three and gave each team a different theme: beauty salon, airline, trucking company, etc. and for spice a few strange ones: game developer, oil sheik, California 49er (gold miners, not football players), and wolf pack. It seemed to go very well -- there was some great imagination shown.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

G-Ameland nearly triples in size!

Ameland, The Netherlands
G-Ameland logoThis was the third G-Ameland game development festival for Dutch and Belgian students (and more countries next year, we hope). The last couple of years there were 70 to 80 participants; this year there were 237. Starting on Monday, we all get together for a week of lectures, workshops, and above all game jamming to produce a Flash game by Thursday night. The festival now has its own independent foundation, so it's on a more solid footing this year. It worked just like it did the two previous years, with students coming over to the island of Ameland on the ferry, and occupying bungalows in teams of 4 or 6. I originally had a bungalow to myself, but I had to move out and into a smaller shared one to make room.

Participants in lecture hall.
The whole crowd, and more pouring in.

Day 2: The development theme was sustainability again, although as usual many teams interpreted that very broadly. I gave my GDC lecture, "Single-player, Multiplayer, MMOG: Design Psychologies for Different Social Contexts," then began visiting the teams that I was assigned to mentor. Fortunately they weren't overambitious, unlike many in the past. Unfortunately, the Internet arrangements failed and the students were howling about it. I say it's character-building. Shigeru Miyamoto didn't have any Internet when he conceived of Mario.

Students bouncing on bouncy objectDay 3: I gave a game design workshop for a special group of students visiting for one day from a college in Amsterdam. The results were rather odd. We got a female WWII Dutch Resistance ninja (?!) and a genetically-modified laser-toting whale. Among my G-Ameland teams, one (Ice Puzzles) was actually ahead of schedule. I spent some time this evening playing a board game with Joris Dormans, a PhD candidate at the University of Amsterdam, and looking at his incredibly cool Machinations project, which enables game designers to diagram and prototype their game mechanics. I'll be writing a Designer's Notebook column about Machinations soon.

Macbook laptop modified with Snow WhiteDay 4: Crunch time. The students had to get their games in by 3:30 in the afternoon. The press and various VIPs also came to visit in the afternoon, although I didn't meet many of them as I was too busy with my teams. Then, working with my fellow judges, we had to examine 41 games. The organizers also asked me to host the awards ceremony, which was a big, and loud, success.

The Winners
Honorable Mention for the Best Paper Prototype: Team 20, Think Twice.
Unfortunately I don't remember much about this game, but the judges were all impressed by how well planned it was. It was completely playable on paper; the team just wasn't able to write the code.

Third Place: Team 35, Microbe Prime
This was a very clever and simple game that incorporated a rock-paper-scissors style of gameplay among three species of microbes -- each was prey for another. The player could control one individual, and all the others were managed by AI. Because of the rock-paper-scissors nature, to keep the entire population alive and growing, it was essential not to let any one dominate too much. More often what happened was that the player foolishly ran around eating as many of his prey as he could, which meant that they were not available to keep his predators in check, and the populations became unbalanced and eventually died out.
You can see it here (without sound):

G-ameland 2010 entry from martijn on Vimeo.

Second Place: Team 17, unnamed game
This was a simple educational game for young children made entirely with images photographed on the island of Ameland itself. The player could elect to buy certain things to place on the island, but making the wrong choices would pollute it. The graphic style was very distinctive:

lucdehaan gameland HKU team 17 from luc de haan on Vimeo.

First Place: Team 31, BeeCo
The winner was BeeCo, a real-time strategy game about sustainably building and defending a beehive. The graphics were good, almost everything worked, it addressed the theme of the event, and it had a surprisingly rich internal economy. It was based somewhat upon tower defense principles (wax moths attack the hive, and you have to defend it with bumblebees), but was more sophisticated. As your hive grows, you get more land to search for nectar. However, the flowers don't have an unlimited supply, so if you grow too quickly you'll run out of food for your bees. It's a familiar mechanic applied to a new situation, and very well-executed... especially considering how little time the team had to build it. Here's the video (without sound):

The afterparty went far into the night. A little too far into the night, to be honest, and some people celebrated rather more than was good for them.

Day 5: Homeward bound by bus, ferry, car, train, plane, and taxi. It was a lot of fun as always, and tiring as always. There were a few growing pains (at first the students weren't very good about leaving enough food for others), but I'm looking forward to next year already.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

I've Submitted My PhD Thesis

Back in 2003 I was invited to deliver a keynote address at a conference at the University of Teesside in Middlesbrough, England. It was called COSIGN, for Computational Semiotics on Games and New Media. While I was there I met one of the organizers, Dr. Clive Fencott, at the School of Computing and Mathematics. He invited me to become a Visiting Fellow at Teesside and to study for a special degree they have there called a PhD by Completed Work. The degree is specifically intended for people who have spent many years in industry, and have done enough work there to merit a PhD. I gratefully took him up on it, although it has taken me several more years to get around to writing up my thesis.

I finally started working seriously on it this spring, and I have just formally submitted it for consideration. The title is Resolutions to Some Problems in Interactive Storytelling, and it addresses some issues that I first brought up at the Computer Game Developers' Conference all the way back in 1995: the Problem of Amnesia, the Problem of Internal Consistency, and the Problem of Narrative Flow. At the time I thought that these problems might be insoluble, that they just had to be lived with. However, I went on thinking about them, and discussing them and other problems of interactive storytelling from time to time at the Game Developers' Conference. Eventually I came to the realization that our expectations about the ideal interactive storytelling experience were based on a set of unrealistic assumptions, and that as game designers we were actually setting ourselves up to fail. By abandoning those assumptions, I found a new way of thinking about the respective roles of the player and the designer that resolves the Problems of Internal Consistency and Narrative Flow. I explained my new perspective at GDC 2006, in a lecture called "A New Vision for Interactive Stories."

The thesis itself explains the new schema, compares it with the work of others in the field, and critques my older works. At the heart of it lies a realization that the player in an avatar-based interactive story is in part an actor, and so takes joint responsibility for the quality of the experience that he has. This flies in the face of conventional game industry wisdom, which places all the responsibility on the shoulders of the designer, and assumes that the player should be able to do whatever he wants.

My thesis also discusses a few other contributions I have made over the years, mostly in my Designer's Notebook columns at Gamasutra. Among them are the distinction between dramatic tension and gameplay tension and the idea that an automated story-generation system might keep a credibility budget to be sure that it didn't generate stories that were too outrageous to be believed.

Anyway, I've turned it in, and I'm now waiting for my supervisor to name a committee of examiners to read and pass judgment on it. I expect to conduct my defense (which in England they still call by the Latin name viva voce) sometime in October or November.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

European Odyssey

Visby - Stockholm - Tidaholm - Copenhagen - Bremen - Leeuwarden - Amsterdam - Brussels - London

University of   Gotland logoIt began with a trip to Visby, the largest town on the island of Gotland, off the Swedish coast in the Baltic. I'm now on the faculty at the University of Gotland, and I go there about five times a year. These trips have become so routine that I've stopped recording them in my News pages.

This one wasn't routine. I got trapped on the island by the Icelandic Eyjafjallajokull volcano ash cloud that shut down European air travel, and it took me seven extra days to get home again. In the course of the trip I passed through five capital cities in five days.

Sunset on GotlandOn April 11 I flew from London to Stockholm and changed to a small propellor plane that flies to Gotland. Monday the 12th I had no direct teaching duties and did some work on other projects. On Tuesday I gave my Mechanics workshop to a room full of students. I need to come up with a slightly more numbers-oriented game to use in the workshop, but it went OK.

Wednesday was spent working with first-year student teams all day. I'll be a judge at the Gotland Game Awards next month, so I shouldn't show any favoritism by saying which ones I liked best... besides, everybody still has a lot of work to do.

That afternoon the volcano started producing enough ash to become a hazard to airplanes. I didn't think much of it, though; Gotland is a long way from Iceland, right?

Visby historic buildingThursday I spent working with second-year teams. The weather was clear and cold, with no sign of any ash in the sky. Little did I know that British airspace was being closed entirely, and that night, Sweden's airspace closed too. I figured it would literally blow over after a while, but on Friday it became clear that I wouldn't be going home on Saturday. I called my airline and rebooked my flight for the first thing they could give me, which was the following Wednesday.

The weekend was a waiting game. I worked on other things and wandered around Visby a little bit, wishing I had brought a better camera. Meanwhile, all of Europe was in an uproar -- trains and ferries were jammed, as travelers tried to get home. I was on an island, Gotland, trying to get to another island, Britain, which made it doubly difficult for me.

On Sunday my wife managed by a miracle to reserve me a ticket on the Eurostar (the Channel Tunnel train) from Brussels to London on Saturday the 24th... a week away. It didn't take long to decide that I should buy it. There was no sign of the volcano letting up, and people were predicting that it might go on for months. Lovely as Visby is, I couldn't stay there indefinitely. The trick was to find a way from Visby to Brussels.

M/S Visby from the boarding loungeMonday morning I went in to the department office to talk to Don Geyer, director of the game program, about what we should do. The trains were so full that I wasn't sure I could count on them. Don kindly offered to put me on a ferry to the mainland and rent a car for me in Stockholm, which I would drive to Brussels. The drop-off charge would be horrendous, but it seemed like the best way. A travel agent made the arrangements, and I spent the rest of the afternoon getting driving directions from Google and printing out road maps of the journey.

One of the nice things about teaching all over Europe is that I have clients in a lot of places. Before I left I sent a message to everyone who was along my route, offering them a special VOLCANO DISCOUNT good for ONE WEEK ONLY. I knew it was a long shot on such short notice, but two people actually took me up on it, as you'll see.

Tuesday April 20: Visby to Stockholm

The ferry left at 7 AM on Tuesday morning. In order to pack, have a shower, and walk to the ferry port in time, I had to get up at 4. So began the odyssey.

View Larger Map

This map shows my actual trip from the Visby Ferry Terminal to the Brussels Airport. I turned in the car there and made the rest of the journey by train, which Google Maps can't show.

The ferry was large and fancy, much nicer than some of the ones I've taken across the English Channel. At that hour of the day, there was almost nobody on it. They got me a first-class ticket, which meant that I had a big assigned seat in the forward part of the ship, with an airplane-style sound system and a movie. Alas, I was too sleepy to enjoy it. I slept most of the 3-hour ride to Nynäshamn, which is where the ferry makes landfall on the Swedish mainland. The ferry connects with a bus to the Stockholm Central Bus Station, and the Hertz Rent-a-Car offices were just outside. I got there at just about noon.

Tuesday April 20: Stockholm to Tidaholm

My car proved to be a Ford Converse station wagon (estate car). It was pretty big, but it was comfortable and had lots of power. It didn't take me long to get out of Stockholm. From then on it was high speed freeway all the way to Jonköping. Swedish freeways are smooth and not too crowded -- in a nation of only 9 million people, that's not a surprise. Unfortunately, the airwaves were equally uncrowded... out in the country, there was very little on the radio.

My friend Ulf Wilhelmsson at the University of Skövde was one of the ones who responded to my Volcano Discount offer. He couldn't hire me, but he did offer to put me up for the night. It was great to see him again, and well worth the brief detour to his house in Tidaholm. I got there just in time for dinner. Thanks, Ulf!

Wednesday April 21: Tidaholm to Copenhagen to Bremen

This was the longest and certainly the dullest day. Ulf and his wife had to get up early, but I took it a bit easy -- since the previous day began at 4 AM, I needed the sleep. Back down to the E4 at Jonköping and on down to Malmö. The landscape didn't change much: rolling hills, lakes, and trees, trees, trees. It flattened out a bit as I got to Helsingborg and started following the coast. There's a ferry from Helsingborg across to Helsingør in Denmark (the home of Hamlet's castle, Elsinore, which Mary Ellen and I visited many years ago), but I decided to take the toll bridge from Malmö to Copenhagen.

That's quite some toll. The Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco is up to $6, I believe; this was 395 Swedish crowns, which is $54 or £35.

There weren't any customs formalities at the border with Denmark -- indeed, none at all until I went to board the Eurostar for Britain. Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Holland, and Belgium, plus many other European countries, are part of the Schengen Agreement, a treaty that allows free movement across most intra-European borders -- an idea that would horrify most Americans, I'm sure. Britain, being an island and the target of a certain amount of terrorism, is not in the Schengen Agreement. However, Britain has free movement (they call it a "common travel area") with the Republic of Ireland. In fact, there aren't even any signs to indicate when you're entering the Republic from the North. They would probably get torn down.

I skirted the edge of my second capital city, Copenhagen, and drove on down to Rødby, where you catch the ferry to Germany. There was quite a lot of traffic heading south out of the city, but the farther I went the more it thinned out.

The British are forever moaning about how wind turbines spoil the landscape (I don't agree); they should see southern Sweden and Denmark. I don't know how much Scandinavian electricity actually comes from these turbines, but it's not for want of trying -- they were all turning steadily, and I must have passed close to a hundred of them.

A view of a sister ferry in Rødby, DenmarkThe ferry to Germany only took 45 minutes, but was even more expensive than the bridge from Sweden: 499 Danish crowns, which is $89 (£58). I grabbed a quick dinner aboard, but it seemed like I had hardly wolfed it down before we were pulling into Puttgarden and I had to get back in my car.

If there's one thing every red-blooded male in the Western world knows about German roads, it's that there's no speed limit on the autobahn. That's true in some places, but not everywhere. On most of my route the speed limits were as low as anywhere else -- 110 or 120 kph -- and there were road works every 10 kilometers or so. I did try pushing the car a bit in an unlimited section, but a Ford Converse is not a Mercedes S-class and I backed off after a few seconds. It got a little twitchy at high speeds.

On I went, across northern Germany, past Hamburg towards Bremen. At this point I diverted from my direct route to Brussels, because I was going to stop off in Leeuwarden in the Netherlands. Outside Bremen I found a roadside hotel that was comfortable and surprisingly inexpensive.

Thursday, April 22: Bremen to Leeuwarden

The next client along my way was the Northern College of Leeuwarden, for whom I've done a lot of work in the last couple of years. As it happened, Thursday was the birthday, and also the graduation date, of my friend Jonathan van Woudenberg, who has worked with me a lot there. It only took me a couple of hours to drive to Leeuwarden. I checked into a hotel and then went to the university to see his graduation presentation and have a celebratory dinner with his friends.

Friday, April 23: Leeuwarden to Amsterdam

I spent all day Friday working with students in the Communication and Multimedia Design department, which I've done several times before. At the end of the day I was off again, to a hotel Mary Ellen found for me near the Amsterdam airport (at one point we thought I might fly home from Amsterdam). This took me along the magnificent Afsluitdijk, which means "Enclosure Dike" in English. I stopped to take a few pictures at the Art Deco monument that commemorates its completion.

The Afsluitdijk
The Afsluitdijk, looking north: a nice illustration of the concept of the vanishing point. On the left is the Waddenzee (an intertidal zone of the North Sea); on the right is the Ijsselmeer.The figure in the middle distance is a sculpture.

This brings up a story. A little learning is a dangerous thing, as I found out on one of my first visits to the the Netherlands as an adult.

When I was a kid my family had a number of long-playing records with dramatizations of various kinds made by the Walt Disney Company. One of these was an adaptation of the book Hans Brinker; or, The Silver Skates. The story took place in the Netherlands and involved an ice skating race on the Zuider Zee. Unfortunately, the American actors who played the parts pronounced this term "ZY-der Zee," and I didn't know any better. (It should really be pronounced "ZOW-der Zay," and simply means Southern Sea.)

Art Deco lettering on the Afsluitdijk MonumentWhen I knew I was going to Holland I looked on a map and was surprised to find that there was no sign of the Zuider Zee anywhere. Once I got there I asked several people, all of them young, where it was. None of them had any idea what I was talking about. (This was not helped by my mispronunciation of the name.) I explained about the record and the book. They had never heard of either.

Some later research revealed the explanation. Hans Brinker was written in the 19th century by an American woman who had never been to the Netherlands -- it was very popular in the US, but is unknown in Holland. The Zuider Zee does not exist and has not existed since May 28, 1932. It was there when she wrote the book, but it's gone now.

It used to be an enormous inlet of the North Sea, but on that day, the Zuider Zee was completely enclosed by the Afsluitdijk, and was renamed the Ijsselmeer. With time, fresh water from the river IJssel pushed out the salt water, and now it's a vast lake. In addition, the Dutch reclaimed quite a lot of it and created a completely new province, Flevoland, which is actually below sea level.

From there I went on to my hotel near the airport, an easy drive.

Saturday, April 24: Amsterdam to Brussels to London and home

The last day of the journey was a long one, but not particularly arduous. I got up and drove from the Amsterdam airport to the Brussels airport, a matter of about three hours. Here I encountered the heaviest traffic along the route, but it was never really bad. I had to get the car to the Hertz facility by 1:30, and I made it with about half an hour to spare.

A scene from Tintin in America, Brussels-Midi stationFrom the airport -- which was now open and busy -- I took a train to Brussels-Midi, the station that the Eurostar departs from. Unfortunately, my train wasn't until 8 PM and the automated left-luggage lockers weren't working, so I couldn't go anywhere. There was nothing to do but hang around with my suitcase. Fortunately I keep a lot of free E-books on my PDA (mostly old ones thanks to the wonderful Project Gutenberg), so I didn't get bored.

To my surprise, the Eurostar wasn't jammed -- it wasn't even full. It's fast, though. Brussels to London is only two hours. With the time change to the UK, I got in to St. Pancras station at 9 PM, took a taxi across London to Waterloo station (I hate hauling luggage through the Underground), and was home by 10:30.

Parts of the trip were fun; parts were tedious; parts were interesting and unusual. It was certainly expensive, and would have been a great deal more so if the University of Gotland hadn't kindly paid for the car and the ferry from Gotland to the mainland. I owe a lot to Mary Ellen Foley, my tireless Ground Support Team, who researched cars and trains and ferries and hotels, and got me the Eurostar ticket and the Amsterdam hotel.

Unfortunately, it also cost me a week's work on my PhD thesis, which I can ill afford. I have to go back in a month for the Gotland Game Awards, and I'm really hoping it doesn't happen again.

This blog has moved

This blog is now located at
You will be automatically redirected in 30 seconds, or you may click here.

For feed subscribers, please update your feed subscriptions to