Archive for July 2012


Why Interactive Storytelling Will Have More Than One Answer

July 16th, 2012 — 7:24pm

A few weeks ago I attended Chris Crawford’s interactive storytelling gathering in southern Oregon.  It was a small group, less than a dozen, but the composition was fairly diverse and included game designers, industry execs, interactive fiction authors, academics, writers and even one venture capitalist.

There’s a lot of debate about what interactive storytelling is and how to solve the “interactive storytelling problem”.  I think this is a bit misguided as it tends to treat interactive storytelling as a singular technological hurdle to be overcome (like 3D rendering).   But interactive storytelling isn’t a problem or a technology, it’s a category, one that will likely have multiple viable product types that each have their own set of challenges to be solved.

I base this on the simple observation that if you’re going to create a category called “interactive storytelling”, there must also be a category of everything else called “non-interactive storytelling” which includes such wide ranging possibilities as “novels”, “music”, “movies”, “comics”, “poetry” and so forth.  While it doesn’t logically follow that interactive storytelling must likewise have more than one form of expression, it does seem more than probable given the diverse range of methods for non-interactive storytelling and the really broad macro level categorization (interactive vs. non-interactive, neither of which is actually descriptive of what someone might experience).

In other words, I think it’s a mistake to think of interactive storytelling as one more means to tell a story the way a novel or movie does.  It’s really a massive grouping of expressive forms, some of which may be mirrors from the non-interactive side of the fence (e.g. “interactive novels”) and some of which may be new things entirely.

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What Is The Game About: Dodgeball

July 9th, 2012 — 5:16pm

This is part four of a multi-part series on focus in game design, using examples primarily from Knockabout Games.  The first post can be found here.

In 2005 my company Knockabout Games built a mobile game for Superscape based on a license to the movie Dodgeball.   We did our homework — that is, we played all the old console and pc implementations of dodgeball and watched the movie — but none of us thought this was a very hard question to answer.  After all, the thematic answer is driven by the license (“it’s a tongue-in-cheek view of niche sports, specifically dodgeball”).  And it’s dodgeball.  Which means that functionally it must be about dodging.

Except, not really.  We designed all our features to support the core concept of dodging, only to find that wasn’t particularly fun (and was quite difficult on a handset with a “team” of 4 or 5 characters).  What was far more enjoyable, once we had the first playable in hand, was hitting opponents with the ball.

So midstream we changed the focus and modified (or dropped) all the game’s features accordingly.  “Dodging” was now a supporting feature, one that you had to pay much less attention to.  And we added things like a unique throw per team (e.g. a curveball or one that bounced off the back wall) and a method for moving your team in lockstep and throwing multiple balls at once.  These were simple changes, but overnight the game went from “crappy licensed movie game” to “hey, this is a lot of fun”.  Indeed, one reviewer later observed they couldn’t think of a specific reason to like the game, except that they couldn’t put the damn thing down.


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What Is The Game About: Precision Pinball

July 2nd, 2012 — 5:24pm

This is part three of a multi-part series on focus in game design, using examples primarily from Knockabout Games.  The first post can be found here.

I’ve designed a lot of computer pinball games.  My first one, “3D Pinball For Windows“, has the odd claim to fame of being seen by pretty much anyone who ever owned a PC.  Back in 1994, when I started working on that game, I wasn’t asking myself “what is the game about”.  I just went and made a pinball game (one that was about as kitchen sink a design as you can imagine).  It wasn’t great, but it was entertaining and acceptable for the time.

So when I sat down to make a computer pinball game for a mobile phone in 2003, I really wanted to get to the underlying core of what pinball was about.  At a minimum, I wanted to identify a key element a mobile pinball game could be built around that wouldn’t be crippled by the device.

What I settled on was “motion”.  Pinball is all about sending the ball careening around the playfield.  Unimpeded motion is far more appealing than obstacles;  and any motion that ends with a reaction (e.g. a target drops or a spinner turns) is better than one that ends with nothing happening at all.

Some of the things we did to reinforce motion in the game:

  • Every possible angle away from the flippers resulted in a target being hit or, more often, the ball gliding gracefully up a ramp or through an arcing channel.
  • We changed the underlying collision detection to be different than the visual, narrowing things like posts and the ends of walls so that the ball was more likely to glide past and into a lane or ramp than bounce back.
  • Lights were laid down in all channels and ramps that would light up briefly as the ball went past, adding to and enhancing the motion.
  • We made the game easy.  There were lots of reasons to do this, but more fundamentally, one ball in play for a long time is more continuous motion without interruption.

Reviewers and players loved the game, although it fared poorly as a commercial title (it only appeared on three handsets, limiting its distribution).  It did very well in OEM, which was oddly appropriate given how most folks discovered “3D Pinball For Windows” a decade earlier.

Next week:  Dodgeball

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