Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Balancing Act

I've moved! This site is no longer being updated. Please head over to instead, and update your bookmarks. Thanks.

The conversation I most dread is the one that starts: 'I hope you don't mind me saying, but it's quite...unusual that you're a woman.' My smartypants answer is that is perfectly usual for me, thank you very much, but I'm sympathetic to the point being made. Women are still a minority amongst conventional gamers, and it's rarer still for those women to make gaming their job. But while I agree it's a fair point that I'm in an unusual position, I still dread the questions that follow it. I have no good explanation for what it is that drew me to gaming. I still don't know if I saw something in gaming that most women don't notice but would like if they did, or if games found something in me that most women don't have and wouldn't want if they could. I'm profoundly uncomfortable being asked to be a spokesman for 51% of the world's population, especially since the only thing we know about me for sure is that I'm an oddity.

But the commercial necessity behind better exploiting that 51% remains, so the question is going to keep coming up. And from now on, I'm going to answer it by referring people to 'Is There Anything Good About Men?', a paper given at the American Psychological Association's annual conference by Dr Roy F. Baumeister of Florida State University. In it, he suggests that most cultures are equally, but differently, exploitative of men and women, leading to a situation where men are more attuned to wide, distributed networks that reward competition and specialisation, and women prize small, intimate social networks which thrive on co-operation and generalisation. You're bound to disagree with some or all of his points, but it's well worth a read - it's long, but light - and got me thinking in some new ways about game design.

What's particularly interesting to me is that the gender imbalance he describes is evident even in the way that very conversation tends to go: women who ask me about how I got started in games follow up with small-scale social questions - how have I been treated, do I encounter prejudice, am I self-conscious when playing in front of a male audience. The men get very rapidly side-tracked on to specialist, general-scale questions. If I mention Dungeon Master as being the first moment when games took over my life, women ask me how my parents felt about my new hobby, or if it brought me greater acceptance among male friends. Men, on hearing this news, are more likely to move on to wondering whatever happened to FTL, or whether or not I'd ever tried completing it with only one character.

So allowing that I find the root of Baumeister's argument plausible, what does it mean for the great Girls In Games debate? In asking why more women don't play games, we worried a lot, initially, about surface things - boy-games were too violent, too lasers-and-robots. What we needed was girl-games about shopping, horses and make-up! Now, thankfully, we've moved a little past that (despite the fact that games about shopping, horses and make-up do seem to be proving particularly successful with young female consumers, particularly on the DS), and are looking at important external factors. So we've noted that for games to be attractive to women they need to be available on hardware they feel comfortable with, and offer play-patterns that are compatible with busy, often fragmented lives.

But what Baumeister's paper makes me think about is whether or not we're neglecting an examination of more basic gameplay issues. Does his thesis suggest that women would be more comfortable with a game which had a small cast of characters than either none or many? Does his theory that women see less advantage in specialisation mean that they'll be alienated by the common RPG mechanic where levelling-up in one field disables your potential in another? Should risk-reward ratios be normalised - smaller risks for smaller rewards - for games aimed at girls rather than boys? By which I mean, could you produce a functionally identical game - same visuals, same interface, same goals, same structures - but tune it to appeal more to one gender or another?

And, actually, Dungeon Master might not be a bad place to start. Would women prefer it if the initial character choice was smaller? Would they enjoy exploring more if the mazes were more compact, but contained more hidden detail? Would they warm more to a levelling-up system that was fuelled by the characters' interactions (rather like Disgaea 2's spell-learning system, where characters can learn magic by osmosis, simply by standing near their spell-casting father-figures). Would they (oh, the hate-mail) like it better if it was easier?

Actually, in a transparent attempt to divert you from your poison pen, I'm going to point you to Return To Chaos, a Windows port of Dungeon Master, for those too impatient to find it for Steem, or those too lazy to unearth their ST from the attic. Don't hesitiate to play it if you haven't before, and if you have, don't worry about whether your fond memories of it will survive having their rose-tinted spectacles ripped off. It hasn't aged a button.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Vibri is the magic number

I've moved! This site is no longer being updated. Please head over to instead, and update your bookmarks. Thanks.

Having done the find-purge-sort process that is moving house twice so far this year, I'm discovering all sort of odd traits amongst my remaining game collection. What I noticed today was that the only complete series I own is Vib Ribbon. You'll probably remember Vibri - the angular rabbit that did rhythm gymnastics to your CD collection. You probably won't remember Mojibri - the big-trousered gent who did rapping calligraphy in Mojib Ribbon, or Vibri's elastic return when she bounced all over your digital photos in Vip Ripple.

It's not really what I expected, but the more I think about it, the more I think that Vibri might be the perfect game trilogy. Making sequels is a thankless task, always open to accusations of being too similar or too different. 'More an expansion pack' sneer the reviews, or, alternatively whine that things have been needlessly changed. But NanaOn-Sha, under the direction of Masaya Matsuura, broke all the rules. The three games look completely different - from the brutalist monochrome of the first, to the ink-painting organics of the second, to the day-glo sticker-kitsch of the third. And they play completely differently, from Vib Ribbon's taxing button combos, to Mojib's hypnotic stick flicks, to the trampoline-powered platforming vibe of Vib Ripple.

So are they a trilogy at all? Or just three unrelated games from someone too lazy to think up a new naming convention? Absolutely. What Matsuura does is use the familiar to make the unfamiliar more palatable. The common mechanics - the ability of the main character to evolve up or down, rather than having lives - and the common interface design - the circling characters that denote how close you are to evolving upwards - help give you your bearings in an experience which would otherwise be a bit too close to baffling. The same guiding principle underpins all three - that games should interconnect with the rest of your cultural life (so Vib Ribbon can make levels out of your CD collection, Mojib out of the words you write, and Ribbon out of the photos you take). And they each complement the others: Ribbon is by far the most convincing game, Mojib the greatest visual achievement, and Ripple the best implementation of user-generated content.

Imagine if more series were allowed the same latitude. Imagine if Namco had said to Takahashi, 'We don't want Katamari 2, we want something that complements it'. Imagine if the follow-up to The Sands Of Time hadn't been based on the feedback-loop of focus-group complaints (more blood! more rock!), but on the idea that maybe this team which had just done something fresh and wonderful might be capable of, y'know, doing something fresh and wonderful. Because, as the manual scans of Mojib Ribbon below show, when you do that, beautiful things can happen.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Killing time

I've moved! This site is no longer being updated. Please head over to instead, and update your bookmarks. Thanks.

I've had a bumper - well, maybe bumpy rather than bumper - postbag in response to my BBC column earlier in the week about the impact violent games have on our minds. The letters raised some interesting points, so I thought I'd give an airing to them here. One questioned whether we were concerning ourselves with the right kind of violence, asking if the dangerous driving rewarded in so many racing games wasn't having a more pernicious influence than the gun games that are normally in the firing line. It's an issue which came to the fore with the BSM research released earlier in the year, and neatly summarises the problems facing a games industry which claims that violent games have no adverse impact, but that educational games are uniquely potent teaching tools.

Another took the firm line that gamers and parents need to exercise more control over extreme playing habits, which raises the interesting question of how much responsibility the games industry should be taking for its customers. Are the play time controls available in Windows XP and World Of WarCraft standard bearers in a new era of developer responsibility? Or are they the needless interference of nannying companies ever sensitive to the risk of lawsuits? Another correspondent quite rightly took me to task for being so quick to claim that all attacks on violent games were unfounded, and then raised the ongoing question of whether the interactive nature of games means their standards for violence should be tighter than for media like film or TV.

Thinking about these issues has made me want to post a couple of the points I didn't want to try to shoehorn in to the column, but which I do find troubling and interesting. The first is to wonder why, when we talk about games causing violent behaviour, we always seem to automatically be talking about copycat violence. The great spectre than hangs over gaming always seems to be the idea that beating prostitutes to death with a giant dildo in a game will make you more likely to do it in real life. And so the debate gets bogged down in questions of whether or not games are murder simulators, teaching firearms skills and advanced thuggery to a nation of eager students. That theory may be self-evident nonsense, but what about the games that do make you violent or abusive? Games can be overwhelmingly, infuriatingly, unbearably frustrating, and I know that they've caused me in the past to be (at best) sulky and petulant, and (at worst) prone to very uncharacteristic bouts of shoe-throwing and swear-word screaming. It is for these reasons that multiplayer Puzzle Bobble was once banned in my house and that I came to the conclusion that I might part from Jet Force Gemini on better terms if I didn't continue my final battles with Mizar. The latest, and most tragic, story along these lines is this one, of a man who stands accused of shaking a 4-month old baby to death after becoming enraged after playing a game. Is the Manhunt hysteria distracting us from a much lower-key, but more worrying issue? Here's the key question: has gaming frustration ever driven you to a more extreme form of behaviour than other annoyances in your life? And what are the implications if it has?

The other issue is that we might have the shoe on the wrong foot. Most of the violence-in-games debate is concerned with the worry that gamers may transpose the morals and activities of the game world into the real world. There's a growing body of research that shows that they won't - that people of all ages have a pretty robust grasp of what's real and what isn't. But what if the gap starts to close from the other direction? What if the real world starts to look and behave more and more like a videogame? It's not easy to read about weapons platforms like SWORD - which provides joystick-and-screen remote control over a machine-gun emplacement, and has recently been deployed by the US Army in Iraq - and not recall with unease the opening of something like Climax's Black Hawk Down, which had you merrily slicing through hordes of anonymous enemies courtesy of a thumbstick-and-screen remote control machine-gun emplacement. It's a sinister enough thought before you add in the findings of something like Stanley Milgram's controversial electric shock experiments, which found that subjects were more willing to inflict pain on innocent victims the more remote they were from them. So do I worry about an epidemic of prostitute dildocides? No. But do I worry about what happens when you add videogame controls to a weapon of mass-murder and put it in the hands of a generation raised on Counter-Strike? Sure I do. Don't you?

Saturday, August 11, 2007


I've moved! This site is no longer being updated. Please head over to instead, and update your bookmarks. Thanks.

He is in a maze of twisty passageways, all alike. No, he really is. In the new issue of Digital Humanities Quarterly (a new peer-review, open access journal clear-headed enough to admit that it doesn't yet know what Digital Humanities actually are), Dennis G. Jerz goes spelunking for the origin of adventure games.

It's over thirty years ago now, that the idea that a game could be an adventure was invented. Before that time, we'd been used to parlour games, combat games, sports games, racing games - tasks that required fast reactions and not much more. Nothing atmospheric, certainly. Nothing that required lateral thinking. And then along came Adventure. Released almost by accident by its original author William Crowther, it soon developed a life of its own, leading directly to the creation of Warren Robinett's 2600 Adventure as well as the Zork games, and establishing a bloodline that today brings us Zeldas and Bioshocks and Fables.

And so Jerz digs deep, going back to the original caves which inspired Crowther, and the original source code which establishes his status as the father of the genre. The whole article is a wonderful read, even if you skim the academic bits, just to remind yourself of a time when an innovative game was something which introduced something as radical as the idea that objects could be picked up and dropped, rather than one which introduces a new kind of gun. But it's the photos that are the real draw. Proponents of the text adventure have always said that words could do more than a thousand polys, and here's the proof, in true, photo-realistic techicolour. If you love games because they make you feel that you've been places, done stuff, and seen things no-one else has, you owe yourself a visit to where it all started.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

What if it isn't Sony's fault?

I've moved! This site is no longer being updated. Please head over to instead, and update your bookmarks. Thanks.

Bear with me.

So, we know where we are. Sony have done everything they could wrong, with their enemy-crab-infested, triple-delayed, masturbation-sanctioning, Spider-Man-branded, over-priced, loss-generating, truth-economising, cathedral-desecrating super-console.

And Microsoft have done everything right. They launched first, with a well-priced, good-looking machine, a top-notch online service, a steady stream of decent games, smart branding, likable PR, and a nice clutch of exclusives to look forward to. So, apart from the tiny matter of every single console so far sold being fundamentally unreliable, they could hardly have handled it better.

And so we have a situation where the 360 is selling double the PS3 in the US, the Wii is outselling it five to ten times over most weeks in Japan, and around the world the PS2 remains many times over the more popular of Sony's home consoles. Stupid, stupid Sony.

And for Microsoft, there must be a double dose of schadenfreude, because it wasn't too long ago that they were the ones doing everything wrong. Their initial arrival into the games industry was treated with hostility and skepticism. Their console was amazingly ugly. Their print adverts were close-up pictures of pubic hair, and their TV adverts were banned. Their controllers were too big for normal people's hands (are you saying I'm not normal?). They arrived late into a battle which Sony had already won. And so this time, having done everything right and watched their competitors do everything wrong, they must be reaping their rewards.

In the 19 months after its launch, Microsoft sold 9.4 million Xboxes.
In the 19 months after its launch, Microsoft shipped 11.6 million 360s.

That's an increase of 23%. Not a bad uplift. But, as ever, the trick is in that little word shipped. Microsoft also announced that it cut shipments from 1.8 million in the last quarter of last year, to 700,000 in the first quarter of this year. What that means is that retail channels are already well-stocked with 360s, which means that it's certain the number of 360s sold is considerably lower than 11.6 million. And considerably lower than 11.6 million is in the region of 10 million, which is in the region of what they managed to sell last time.

I am the only one perplexed by this? The first Xbox was all about establishing the brand and learning the ropes. It's a policy that seemed to have worked, and yet here Microsoft are, reaching no more people now than they were first time out.

Who could explain that? Well, Satoru Iwata could. He's been telling everyone who'll listen for the past two years that the stagnant, collapsing conditions which hit the Japanese market a few years ago would wash out across the world before long. And maybe, distracted as we all are by Sony's continued foot-swallowing, we're allowing ourselves to overlook the fact that the Western mainstream games market also seems to be at saturation point. So while Sony still has a lot of explaining to do (rough figures: it's taken PS3 eight months to sell around four million. It took PS2 twelve months to sell ten million), they could well be facing tougher market conditions than we've yet realised. Think about it: is there really anyone left in the developed world that wants to play videogames who isn't already?