What should a casual MMOG feel like?

The prims are always greener by yhancik on Flickr

I’m find­ing myself in the start­ing phas­es of design­ing a casu­al MMOG (or vir­tu­al world, if you pre­fer that term). When I say design, I mean deter­min­ing the struc­ture and behav­iour of the world — inter­ac­tion design, in oth­er words.

It’s an inter­est­ing chal­lenge (and a sig­nif­i­cant change from design­ing mobile games, to say the least). I can’t think of a class of games that has the poten­tial for more emer­gent phe­nom­e­na, both social and eco­nom­ic. This is tru­ly a sec­ond order design chal­lenge.

Of course, the same old play­er needs still hold true, and tools and tech­niques such as sce­nar­ios and sto­ry­boards are just as use­ful here as in any oth­er project. But the need for an iter­a­tive, test dri­ven design and devel­op­ment process becomes huge­ly appar­ent once you start to think about all the effects you sim­ply can­not design direct­ly.

You might think I’m involved with a WoW- or SL-like endeav­our. On the con­trary! The aim of the project is to bring some of the unique plea­sures of a vir­tu­al world to a mass (adult) audi­ence.1 That means mak­ing the expe­ri­ence more casu­al, more short-ses­sion.

Our play­ers will still want to feel relat­ed and socialise, but on their own terms. They’ll still want to feel autonomous and explore, but in short bursts of activ­i­ty. They’ll still want to feel com­pe­tent and achieve, but with­out hav­ing to make too huge an effort…

There’s plen­ty of move­ment in the space of casu­al, short-ses­sion MMOG’s. Some have dubbed them PMOGs — Pas­sive­ly Mul­ti­play­er Online Games — and focus on mak­ing them open sys­tems that inter­act with dai­ly life. I’m try­ing to imag­ine what — as a closed sys­tem — a casu­al MMO should feel like, what its aes­thet­ics (PDF) need to be. What, in oth­er words, would WoW or SL have turned out to be if Miyamo­to-san had designed it?

  1. Plus some oth­er more unique goals, that I won’t talk about just yet. []

My GDC Mobile 2008 proposal: accepted!

Mobile gaming by Kokeshi on Flickr

It doesn’t say so on the site yet, but I am on the pro­gram for next year’s GDC Mobile.1 Yes­ter­day I got the email that my talk — titled Design­ing a Casu­al Social Gam­ing Expe­ri­ence for Gen­er­a­tion C — has been accept­ed. To be hon­est I was quite sur­prised. I work in the blur­ry over­lap of the inter­ac­tion design and game design fields, have no actu­al game titles under my belt and pro­posed a weird sub­ject to boot. Who in their right mind would invite me to speak? Of course I am also real­ly excit­ed about this. GDC is the pro­fes­sion­al event for the games indus­try so I’m hon­ored to be part of it.2

My talk will be close­ly relat­ed to the things I’ve been work­ing on for Playy­oo. I’ll dis­cuss how short-ses­sion mobile games and a web based meta-game can inter­con­nect to cre­ate a social game expe­ri­ence that allows dif­fer­ent lev­els of play­er engage­ment. I’ll look at the ways you can align your game design with the expec­ta­tions of Gen­er­a­tion C: cus­tomiza­tion & per­son­al­iza­tion, recom­bi­na­tion and con­nect­ed­ness. I might post the extend­ed abstract some­time in the future, for now I’m just won­der­ing: Who else is going to GDC? What would you like to see me dis­cuss?

Update: The con­fer­ence site has been updat­ed, here’s the descrip­tion of my ses­sion.

  1. Don’t be scared by the big Orc in the head­er of their site. []
  2. Now I just need to fig­ure out whether trav­el­ing to the US twice in one month is a fea­si­ble under­tak­ing. []

Pollinator — a casual game prototype made with Mobile Processing

I wrote a game about a bee and flowers today

Last sun­day I sat down and cod­ed a pro­to­type of a casu­al game in Mobile Pro­cess­ing. I got the idea for it the evening before: You’re a bee who needs to col­lect as much hon­ey as pos­si­ble in his hive while at the same time keep­ing a flower-bed bloom­ing by pol­li­nat­ing… Play it and let me know what your high score is in the com­ments!

Thinking and making

I’ve been look­ing for an excuse to get some expe­ri­ence with Pro­cess­ing (par­tic­u­lar­ly the vari­ant suit­able for devel­op­ing mobile stuff) for a while. I also felt I need­ed to get back into the mak­ing part of the field I’ve been think­ing about so much late­ly: Game Design. I agree with Saf­fer, Webb and oth­ers — mak­ing is an impor­tant part of the design prac­tice, it can­not be replaced by lots of think­ing. The things learnt from engag­ing with the actu­al stuff things are made of (which in the case of dig­i­tal games is code) aren’t gained in any oth­er way and very valu­able.

Get the game

I’ve uploaded the first ver­sion of the game here. You can play it in the emu­la­tor in your brows­er or if your phone runs Java midlets, down­load the file and play it like you’re sup­posed to: While out and about. The source code is pro­vid­ed as well, if you feel like look­ing at it.1

Pollinator 0.1

How to play

You’re the yel­low oval. The orange tri­an­gle in the top left cor­ner is your hive. Green squares are grass, brown squares are seeds, red squares are flow­ers and pink squares are pol­li­nat­ed flow­ers. The field is updat­ed in columns from left to right (indi­cat­ed by the yel­low mark­er in the bot­tom). A seed will turn into a flower (in rare cas­es a pol­li­nat­ed flower). A flower will die, a pol­li­nat­ed flower will die and spread seeds to grass around it. Move your bee with the direc­tion­al keys, use the cen­tre key to grab nec­tar from a flower. You can cary a max­i­mum of 100 nec­tar. Drop your nec­tar off at the hive (again using the cen­tre key) to up your score. When you first grab nec­tar from a pol­li­nat­ed flower and sub­se­quent­ly from a nor­mal flower, the lat­ter is pol­li­nat­ed. Try to keep the flower-bed in bloom while at the same time rack­ing up a high-score!

You’ll get 10 nec­tar from a flower (in bloom or not). Pol­li­nat­ing a flower costs 5 nec­tar. If you try to take nec­tar more than once from the same flower, you’ll loose 10 nec­tar.2

Improvements

Stuff not in here that I might put into a next ver­sion (when­ev­er I get around to it):

  • Ani­ma­tion — I need to get my feet wet with some script­ed ani­ma­tion. Thing is I’ve always sucked at this. For now it’s all tile-based stuff.
  • Bet­ter feed­back — For instance show the points you earn near the bee and the hive. I think that’ll make the game a lot eas­i­er to under­stand and there­fore more fun.
  • Menus, pause, game over — It’s a pro­to­type, so you get dumped into the action right away. (The game starts on the first key you press.) And there’s no actu­al game over mes­sage, the field just turns green and you’re left to won­der what to do.
  • Bal­ance — I’m not sure if the game like it stands is bal­anced right, I will need to play it a lot to fig­ure that out. Also there’s prob­a­bly a dom­i­nant strat­e­gy that’ll let you rack up points eas­i­ly.

The aim was to cre­ate a rel­a­tive­ly casu­al game expe­ri­ence that will almost allow you to zone out while play­ing. I think it is far too twitchy now, so per­haps I real­ly should sit down and do a sec­ond ver­sion some­time soon.

Mobile Processing

I enjoy work­ing with Mobile Pro­cess­ing. I like the way it allows you to pro­gram in a very naive way but if you like struc­ture things in a more sophis­ti­cat­ed fash­ion. It real­ly does allow you to sketch in code, which is exact­ly what I need. The empha­sis on just code also pre­vents me from fid­dling around with ani­ma­tions, graph­ics and so on (like I would in Flash for instance.) Per­haps the only thing that would be nice is an edi­tor that is a bit more full-fea­tured.3 Per­haps I should grab an exter­nal edi­tor next time?

Feedback

If you played the game and liked it (or thought it was too hard, bor­ing or what­ev­er) I’d love to get your feed­back in the com­ments. Any­one else out there pro­to­typ­ing games in Pro­cess­ing? Or using it to teach game design? I’d be very inter­est­ed to hear about it.

  1. Not that it’s par­tic­u­lar­ly good, I’m an ama­teur coder at best. []
  2. I’m not sure this is the right kind of neg­a­tive rein­force­ment. []
  3. The auto­mat­ic code for­mat­ting refused to work for me, requir­ing me to spend a bit too much effort on for­mat­ting by hand. []

Snacking on casual games

Snacks

Fol­low­ing up on an ear­li­er post about short-ses­sion games here are some com­ments on a recent Gama­su­tra arti­cle by Ian Bogost (it’ll be in the link post for tomor­row). It’s titled ‘Casu­al As In Sex, Not Casu­al As In Fri­day’ and in it Bogost argues there is quite a bit of unex­plored space in the casu­al games domain.

In the arti­cle, Bogost points out that casu­al games are usu­al­ly seen as easy to learn but hard to mas­ter, like Go. They are com­mon­ly cheap (or at least cheap­er than typ­i­cal con­sole and PC titles) and easy to get. Final­ly, con­trol of the game is often sim­ple and lim­it­ed to few inputs. (Bogost rec­om­mends only using the mouse on the PC, I won­der what he’d rec­om­mend on a mobile…one but­ton?)

Bogost points out that a typ­i­cal casu­al game-play ses­sion might be short, but that the over­all mod­el of casu­al gam­ing (both the dis­tri­b­u­tion and the game mechan­ics) actu­al­ly encour­age repeat­ed play over a long peri­od of time where­by a play­er achieves an increas­ing­ly high­er lev­el of mas­tery of the game (which arguably is the antithe­sis of casu­al­ness.)

What we rarely see are games that are explic­it­ly cre­at­ed to be played once and nev­er revis­it­ed. Bogost men­tions Sep­tem­ber 12th and Zidane Head-Butt as pro­to­types for these types of casu­al games.

This is all very inter­est­ing to me because in a cur­rent project I have been dis­cussing this notion of snack-sized games quite a lot. I am con­vinced there is a mar­ket for games that are con­sumed once and are then dis­card­ed, but there are some chal­lenges to over­come. Bogost men­tions these as well: They need to be ridicu­lous­ly sim­ple to access, as cheap as pos­si­ble (ide­al­ly free) and instant­ly learn­able.

One point Bogost doesn’t raise is: Who will feel com­pelled to cre­ate these games? Because game cre­ation always involves some effort, typ­i­cal game devel­op­ers might not see much prof­it in releas­ing their games into the wild for free. What’s in it for them? I think the key there is the democ­ra­ti­za­tion of game cre­ation. Giv­ing ordi­nary users fun tools to cre­ate these short-ses­sion, snack-sized, casu­al-as-in-sex games as a form of per­son­al expres­sion.