Category Archives: Social / Cultural

15 Minutes of Fame, Times Infinity

Last week was an interesting one for enthusiasts of user-generated content.

“You” rock

Time Magazine named “you” (as in everyone) the person of the year. Not surprising, but notable in a “cultural signpost” kind of way. Do “you” feel good about yourself yet?

You rock (with a little help from Microsoft)

Microsoft officially launched XNA Studio Express and the Creators Club, then followed with a number of interviews that declared an unambiguous commitment to UGC. Just a few short years ago, most people in this industry thought that users were good for nothing more than their wallets (plus the occasional UG multiplayer map.) Now Microsoft is dedicating real resources to helping regular people make video games from scratch.

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Whither Viva Piñata 2

Today my buddy Rhys called me out for criticizing Viva Piñata a couple weeks ago, then playing it for significantly more time than I initially intended. (I’d have kept my indulgence a secret, but the Live achievements system sold me out.) So I’ll admit it: I’ve played Viva more than any other 360 game I own. So sue me.

Many other people have written detailed descriptions of why they like this game, so I’ll pass. Instead, I’d like to focus on what I think the Viva Piñata franchise could become, and what that means for gaming in general. In short: I’d like to see Viva Piñata 2 (assuming it’s ever made) focus more on self-expression and social networking.

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Cooperative Play

Tonight I spent about an hour helping my wife play Bejeweled 2 on XBLA. In what appears to have recently become a defining pattern in my life, I played the role of strategist; i.e. pointed out moves that were likely to result in big-scoring combos a few turns down the line, while Eve actually handled the controller. Funny how play imitates work sometimes.  :-)

But anyway, this got me thinking (once again) about how there aren’t enough cooperative games on the market. I really enjoyed helping Eve play Bejeweled, despite the fact that the game was never designed for such a dynamic. And I can’t count the number of people who have told me that they enjoy playing World of Warcraft with their wives in part because they can help each other on quests. In fact, when you really think about it, the ubiquitous Korean Internet cafe gaming+dating scene starts to make sense. Games really can be an ideal mechanism via which to express your affection for someone and via which to enjoy their company.

If we console makers want to attract more female consumers, we can’t just focus on new marketing efforts, or producing more casual games (in general), or hardware redesign. All of that definitely helps, but it just can’t beat twenty minutes of quality time enjoying a game with hubby, or with son, or with brother…

Virtual Market, Meet Counter-Strike

One of my favorite topics is the emergence of “massively-social” elements in non-massive (i.e. traditional) single and multiplayer games. The most famous example of this is Will Wright’s Spore, a “massively single-player” game (Will’s term, not mine) that automatically shares user-generated content across individual game instances. I.e. players create alien creatures, and those creatures are distributed to (and unknowingly rated by) other players who otherwise never interact with one another. I threw around some massively single-player ideas of my own last November, in an effort to illustrate how social elements can be used to combat game piracy.

I mention all this because I recently noticed another nice, mainstream example of massively-social game design. Valve has decided to make the prices of weapons in Counter-Strike: Source dependant upon player demand — a virtual market, in other words. This sort of economic mechanism is common in MMOs but generally unheard of in other AAA games. And it’s brilliant. Why spend huge amounts of time tweaking and re-tweaking game balance when you can reduce your effort by starting from a reasonable point, then letting the market handle the rest?

Valve, to its credit, has been candid with the player community, which seems split between those who are excited about the promise of a more balanced gameplay experience, and those who fear unforeseen problems. I predict that this change will ultimately be embraced by the community as long as there’s no major error in its implementation.

Not much else to say for now. It’s clear (to me at least) that massively-social elements can make a game much more interesting and more profitable. The question is: how long will it take for most AAA game developers to embrace this design philosophy?

MTV Sticky

Thanks to the wonderful research partnership that MIT C3 has with MTV Networks, we get access to a quarterly research publication that MTVN publishes. It’s called “MTV Sticky – International Youth Trend Feed”. The latest issue compiles insights from regular people across the social spectrum (i.e. teachers, shop assistants, etc) who frequently interact with youths.

This quote caught my attention:

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Debating the Long Tail

As some of you may be aware, a rather heated debate over the significance and validity of Chris Anderson’s Long Tail theory has erupted over the past couple of months. (For those of you unfamiliar with it, the Long Tail theory dictates that “our culture and economy is shifting away from a focus on a relatively small number of ‘hits’ at the head of the demand curve and toward a huge number of niches in the tail.”)

The debate started with an article by Lee Gomes in the Wall Street Journal, which vigorously questions some of Anderson’s assertions. I’d characterize myself as a believer in the Long Tail (especially as it relates to digital content) but not necessarily a supporter of everything Anderson has to say on the subject. As such, I appreciated Gomes’ article. Some highlights:

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TV on the Brain

One of C3’s research projects this academic year has been a study of the media consumption habits of American college students. I can’t reveal most of our findings (corporate partners get exclusive access to C3 research for a year’s time), but one thing caught my attention, and I wanted to share it.

In one survey we performed, students were asked to name a media property that they were a big fan of (they were primed to consider: TV, movies, bands, games, websites, books, magazines, and comics.) Of the respondents who gave a clear answer, nearly five times as many chose a TV property vs. video games (or movies, for that matter.)

It’s hard to say with any conviction what this really means. Perhaps not much. Or perhaps it indicates that the “best” TV properties still inspire more loyalty, mindshare, and/or emotion than the “best” game franchises. I don’t really know.

Still, this serves as yet another reminder that no matter how much games are chewing into TV consumption time (which, btw, still trumps hourly game consumption), the boob tube remains an important part of people’s lives. And that perhaps more media companies and game developers should be considering the Desperate Housewives route, in order to capitalize on (and enhance) powerful TV fandoms.

Nintendo Has Common Sense

Nintendo has announced the successor to Brain Age, Common Sense Training for Adults. I’m not going to mince words — this could be pure genius. Not just because it will (like Brain Age) be accessible to consumers of all stripes, but because it takes Nintendo one step closer to dominating a lucrative and untapped market: self-help games.

Most of you are probably aware (or could guess) that self-help is a multi-billion dollar industry. You can find a book (or ten) for every problem you can imagine, not to mention audio tapes, TV shows, etc. But not much in the way of mainstream games, with few exceptions.

So Nintendo is going to teach us “common sense”. If the game proves to be enjoyable and popular, maybe they’ll teach people how to stay in shape, next. (With the Wii, that would be incredibly easy.) Or maybe the next game will be a “romance trainer”, complete with built-in, network-enabled social networking functions at later levels of the game. (“Don’t just train to flirt, put your training into practice!”) Or maybe a negotiation game, with levels like “negotiate a purchase”, “negotiate a sale”, “negotiate a hire”, etc. The list of fun and useful possibilities just boggles the mind.

The Common Sense titles could include a “common sense in other countries” component. I bet people would get a huge kick out of experiencing these cultural differences in the context of a game. And it makes localization of the game much more interesting.  :)

This topic really deserves more attention, but it’s 3am and I want to go to sleep. More in the future!

Games vs. Reality

I was reading Raph Koster’s Theory of Fun and something caught my attention. A quote: The only real difference between games and reality is that the stakes are lower with games.

Interestingly, this statement is becoming progressively less true over time. For example, the extremely successful Diablo franchise offered, among other things, a (“hardcore”) mode of play in which character death was permanent. People who opted for hardcore mode played in constant fear of the single mistake that would end their character (which may have survived through hundreds of hours of gameplay.) For them, every moment in-game was deadly serious.

MMORPGs have taken in-game consequence to the next level; not by introducing permanent death (in general, recent generations of MMOs have made death less punishing, not more), but by creating an environment in which the social consequences of your actions may be severe. As in real life, poor teamwork, cheating, etc in an MMORPG can cause people to avoid and/or badmouth you in the future. As social systems in some MMORPGs continue to evolve, this will become an increasingly powerful phenomenon with very real consequences for players.

The emotional connection that people have to their virtual characters and pets is quite strong. It’s remarkable to see descriptions or video clips of the elaborate rites that some people go through (in-game and out-of-game) when finally quitting an MMORPG. They lay their virtual pets to rest in the same way they might a real dog or cat. They quit their character with as much regret as they might quit a failed romantic relationship.

Of course, Raph knows all this. He was almost certainly talking about stakes in the broader sense; i.e. when you go mountain climbing, there’s a very real possibility that some accident could kill you. There’s a real chance you’ll wreck your car every time you test yourself by driving aggressively (or drive at all, for that matter!) So what he wrote is true, for the most part. I just felt a counterpoint was worthwhile.

Is Social Interaction Really That Important to MMOG Players?

A particularly interesting post on Terra Nova reveals the results of an eight month, detailed study of World of Warcraft. The dataset includes information from over 150,000 characters, so it’s certainly thorough enough. The post claims that the results of the study contradict the commonly-held assumption that people play MMOGs primarily for the social interaction they offer. However, it isn’t clear to me that the data really supports such an argument More on that.

Among the study’s most interesting findings: early-stage players (level 40 and below) spend only 30% of their time in groups, and less than half of WoW players belong to a multi-person guild. Furthermore, the average guild member collaborates (in quests, etc.) with only 11% of his/her guildmates for more than 10 minutes over the same month.

First, this data could indicate that many players rush through the early levels in order to enjoy end-game content with their friends. (Indeed, the study also found that end-game characters spend far more time in groups.) Second, guild members may form strong relationships with a small percentage of their guildmates and choose to group with them whenever possible. (They may not even have a choice, if those guildmates are the only guildmates who regularly play WoW at the same time of day.) Of course, all this could be incorrect as well. I’m just saying it isn’t clear.

The post also states that players favor “soloable” classes like hunters and warriors. (Data here.) That certainly has merit as an argument against social inclination. However, Warlocks are soloable, and they’re the least-played Alliance class. Players may prefer warriors and hunters for any number of unrelated reasons (for example, some may choose warriors because that class enjoys access to the broadest variety of weapons and armor.)

Lastly, from the post: “despite features like WoW’s ‘group xp bonus’, grouping is an inefficient way to level, which naturally steers the more ‘hardcore’ players away from groups (at least, in the early stages of the game).” But if the system is inherently biased against group play at early levels, I don’t see how you can make any major assumptions about social inclination from the data.

Long story short, I’d like to know more before accepting any pronouncements. That said, I’d bet a few developers would be pleased to learn that social interaction is not so important, since accommodating social interaction tends to engender the thorniest design problems.