|D O O R S O F P E R C E P T I O N 5|
|Build, Buy and Live|
Games, models and toys
I was born in an interesting time, about forty years ago. When I was growing up there were no computers around. So I was playing with non-computer based technologies. Most of my playing experience revolved about three basic technologies. Games, models and toys. The kind of games I used to play were these very elaborate historical, recreations of civil war battles. I will be general Lee and my friend would be general Grant. The rules were just mind boggling. You just would not believe these forty page books-of-rules, every little detail of how it is moved and how the two units battle. It was a very formal symbolic system, probably almost as complex as chemistry.
But we sat there and would learn these rules and had very formal goals about who would win, and how units died. Because of this it was actually a very heavy social commitment to playing these games. You had to find a partner who was as crazy as you and who therefore would want to learn these rules. The interesting this about it was that half the time we were actually playing the game, applying the rules to these little people. But the other half of the time we'd spend arguing over the rules, how they're interpreted. And thing is, you learn the structure of these systems from the parts.
When you opened this box there were a billion little parts and you'd say "Wow, billion little parts." And so you slowly proceed in this very obsessive activity, but twenty hours later you'll end up with for example this beautiful looking ship. So as you go down this road and increase your skill at model making, you end up with these artefacts that you don't want to play with. They're too fragile. They're too detailed. Last thing you want to do is to take your beautiful ship with that railing and go put it in water. God forbid! Train sets are very much like this also. I kind of put them in the category of model making. If you actually want to find out what I mean, go over to a friend of yours who actually is seriously into trains, and ask if you can play with his trainset... I can kind of predict what the answer might be.
The models require a lot less imagination than the games. They are very good for learning structure. It is very specialised in the old scene nowadays. It is kind of interesting to me to see that from these three technologies that I'm mentioning today (games, models and toys) models are the ones that seem to be the hardest hit by the new technologies (which is to say: computers and video games).
Toys are the third category and really that's the category that interests me the most. Toys come in all shapes and sizes. Usually they're made for some obvious purpose. You play a game with the ball or the small aeroplane flies. Now, what's interesting to me about toys though is their unintended purpose. You always use the toy for what it was designed for, for about ten minutes. What else can it do, that's the next thing. So you start experimenting with it and trying all these different things. And that's where the toy really comes into its own. To me that's the most interesting aspect of toys.
My daughter and I actually have been playing around with this idea of unintended purposes of toys. It's really amazing how much fun you can have with a Barbie doll. Re purposing her content. Take Barbie and a string an you have bungeejumping Barbie. Throw her of the balcony, aaaahhh. It's pretty cool until the neck breaks. Take Barbie and a race car and you have formula 1 Barbie, drives around until she falls off. Red paint and you have Halloween Barbie. And the best is rocket Barbie, cosmonaut Barbie. We've actually got Barbie ten feet into the air once. But just to warn you: the hair burns pretty easily..;-).
So it's about exploring and experimenting with toys. Toys are like an open field; you want to explore the boundary of the systems. The best ones have a very wide range of applications. If you look at little kids playing with blocks. They will sit there and still sit there and build things with the blocks. And after a while after they have build a tower they will knock it over! And that's another interesting property of toys its 'failure statu's. It's very interesting to watch young kids, how they deal with failure as compared to adults. You would see that really young kids really enjoy failure. They are very comfortable with failure, perhaps because they feel it so often when they are learning to walk and learning to do basic things. So for them 'failure' is this really amazingly cool thing. It's really fun. But you look at adults and adults are terrified of failure.
It's interesting trying to design educational software because you put it in front of kids and they'll click on everything, you know. They have no fear. They don't care if they fail. To them they want to see HOW it fails. The adult is always afraid: "O-ooh, what if I do something wrong", adults are very very timid when you're trying to approach them with educational technology. So what's interesting is really, adults are the problem case I found with educational applications of computers, not kids.
Then came the computer. Now the computer has been applied in various ways to these different technologies I talked about. Applied to games a computer provides an opponent, that is always ready to play. Which is a big problem when you have this games with these labourite sets of rules. Who wants to learn these rules? So having an available opponent is a big plus to game players. It also automates the rules. So it takes out the whole argument of the rules. Which is kind of good, kind of bad depending on the social dynamics. The initial application of computers to games however, was to take a very social play technology and make it very anti-social. Now you can sit in your room at two in the morning playing a game by yourself. You don't have to meet somebody or find somebody with similar interests. Fortunately this situation is ready to change a bit with multiplayer and online games, and I think that will continue in the future. That goes as well for video game systems, you don't tend to see that solitude behaviour as much anumore. mainly because frequently you have many kids cluster around the living room or wherever the Nintendo or PlayStation is. And so those games tend to have a little bit more of a social component, and even a social currency. Where the kids will say: "O, I know how to get to level 3 in Mario". And at school they'd tell their friends. And so it's kind of this social lubricant for kids.
Computers applied to models was very cool actually. We were able to take these very static, lifeless models and add dynamics to it. All of a sudden we were able to simulate the aeroplane flying, the ship sailing, the city growing. The dynamics are what originally attracted me to computers. Because I really enjoyed building modells and when the computer first came out, I quickly realised that it was just this incredible tool for building modells. You could modell anything with a computer. But for most people it's a very unpliable medium for building modells. So that's what keeps people like me in business. What we build are things like Simcity or Civilisation or these games where people can actually have a simple system to build elaborate models. And so for me the computer it allows synonym of modelling but really that whole skill set of modelling that I grew up with as a kid, and all my friends grew up with is almost lost somehow to the computer except in these games.
Now computer as toy I think is where it is the most lacking. That's where toys still have this enormous advantage of undoubted exploration and discovery. We have a lot of things on the computer that we don't call toys but if you look at the way people deal with them, the actually treat them as toys. Things like screen savers or home-design programs, even the internet. Adults like to play with their screen savers, you know, on their break whatever. In the sense of: "Let's kind of explore what happens when I turn the slider all the way up or all the way down".
Basically what I would like to do is see the computer move more into interaction. As an open ended tool for exploration. Also the unintended application is where it's really missing. The kind of games we do, like Simcity, are extrapolations within this taxonomy. Simcity is basically an extrapolation of the trainset. If you look at the way people deal with train sets, it's not really about trains. The trainset is really about creating this little micro world. And the trainset is pliable enough as a modelling medium, different people can come into it with totally different interests. Some people are totally into the hills or the landscape, other people are into the village or the roads or where the little people are on the sidewalks. And a few people are into the trains. But really it's this open ended area. It's this canvas that people can paint with. And Simcity was trying to take that and move that into the dynamic realm. So knowing that if you wanted to build mountains you could build mountains, you could build parks. But it also provided this kind of reason to play. This loose goal structure. So in a way it's kind of a 'modell meets a game meets a toy'. What I am going to show you right now is something similar. But rather than extrapolating the trainset, this one is trying to extrapolate the doll house. I found doll houses very interesting to watch kids play with. Because doll houses are really I think much more of a toy than a model. And again there's this kind of a dimension where with the models as you go from the simple models to the complex models, you have a lot of 'play' on the simple side and they are very easy to build, and as you get to the very detailed models, there's much less play and there's much more rigid, less pliable.
So the doll house compared to the trainset to me is amore pliable toy like thing. Where than you go into it and you make up games with them, doll house. so unfortunately if you try to mention the word doll house to a group of twelve year old boys, the marketing people usually go running. I think we've proven this too. We actually had some focus groups with twelve year old boys and I was calling the game doll house at that point. And as soon as they heard that they ran out. So I stopped calling it that. I learn fast but nevertheless what I'm trying to build here is a doll house that is interesting enough for boys to play with, from their orientation. but at the same I wanted to build something that was very much like a real-time strategy game that girls would enjoy. And something that adults who might approach it as a spreadsheet for life, could appreciate as well.
So I am going to walk over here to the computer. Okay so the game starts here. It occurs at a neighbourhood. Now this actually shows every house in the neighbourhood you build. And you get to go in. And part of the game, the meta game, is actually dealing with relationships between the neighbours. So we're just going to pop into a house here, one that I have already build.
Build, Buy and Live
Now the game occurs in three modes. Build, Buy and Live, which roughly corresponds to simulation or model, 'buy' is kind of the game economic decision and 'live' is the simulation of the people moving around and how they deal with things. Now the 'build' is intended to be an easy to use architecture program. As I mentioned before I think a lot of adults use architecture / home-design packages as toys. If you look at the sales figures for these things, they've sold at least three million of these a year. And I know that many people are actually using them to build homes. I think adults like to play with these, like they would like to play with the doll house. They'll sit there and they would model their house. What if we had a free bathroom what if we build a deck here. But they're really playing that's what they are doing. They're playing with possibilities.
So what we tried to build here is a very easy to use architecture program. Now part of making it simple is actually lowering the resolution. So everything occurs here on a three foot grid. So what I'm showing you here. I just build some halls and some doors, I am choosing a floor pattern here. I can try out another floor pattern, if I want to. You can see the grid size here. It's a size of that tile. Now by actually lowering the resolution of this, we make the editing much easier. And you spend a lot less time trying to get the walls to align, for the things just snap together and a lot more time just building and experimenting.
So in this game part of the 'building', there is actually an economic model. You have little people here and you have to force them to work to earn money, to buy things, including their paying for walls and doors. So part of what you're doing here is you're binding all the different aspects in life and you're trying to maximise their happiness. That is the ostensible goal of the game. The stated goal. One of the things I want this game to be able to do is: I wanted people to be able to put in their own house. For me the idea of having a little model of your real house and a little model of your real family is very compelling. Very much alive, it's a micro world that can match your real world. I'll do a little bit of decoration here, o that's terrible...
So hopefully what some people will use this for is to build a kind of "my virtual house". Maybe it's a voodoo family, or a tamagotchi, or a test to a family.
Now the next mode in the game, is 'buy' mode. This is where you buy objects to put inside their house. They come in different categories. Each object has a description. Now the essence of the game is that you're spending their time to make them happy. So these objects enable conversion of time to happiness. Let's go to 'live' mode briefly and watch our people. A typical person in this game is build out of four sets of variables: - First are the motives, hunger, comfort, hygiene, blather, energy, fun, social and room. These things add up to their happiness, that's the top bar we're seeing right here. So this is Mercedes, she's fairly happy right now. This is Ross, He's pretty happy. They are all pretty happy right now. Now if I don't tell them what to do, they're going to walk around and do whatever they want. So it looks like Samantha is cooking in the kitchen here. Mercedes is grilling on the barbecue.
So every object in the game here is to service one or more of these motives. So the hot tub for instance services the hygiene and the comfort motive. So as you buy these you're actually trying to increase the efficiency. Now I am going to try to have him ... oh he has decided to use the computer right now, so I am not going to interrupt him. Now looking at him, his fun motive is rather low, so he's probably going to play a computer game. Yeah he's booting up Quake or something. I can check in on the other characters.
Okay in addition to the motives, we have the 'personality'. This defines what they will tend to do on their own if you do not intervene. You can chose at any time to grab a character and tell them exactly what to do. I can therefore choose this character and go have her get the espresso, maybe turn on this light. And then call a friend on the telephone. Now she's cueing up these commands, she will execute them. The other two characters who I have not given any instructions to, are doing things based on their personality here. If I make somebody very sloppy, they'll never clean up. Somebody need will have to clean up after the other two. So a lot of the game is about matching skills. You roll on a balance of skills. In addition to creating the house, you actually do create the people also in this game. The skills show how efficiently they do various activities, so if you take somebody with a very low cooking skill, let's try that. I just set Mercedes' cooking skill very low and I'll have her come cook, which is kind of a recipe for disaster in this game.
Now we can look at Ross and see how entertained he got. He's had a lot of fun. You can see the bars. He's a little tired, let's get him a quick espresso. In addition I am going to try and give him something else. I am going to buy them a pool table and see if I can get them to have fun with each other instead of these anti-social computer games that they're playing.
Up to now what I've shown you is the very materialistic side of the game. They earn money. They go to work. They spend it on things. But the other side of this game is the social side. These characters actually do have relationships. So I am going to invite one of our neighbours over. That's the fourth aspect of their personality, their relationships. I get to pick a character. Here I am picking Samantha and this is how much she likes the other two characters. I am actually inviting my neighbour to bring over some friends here. So maybe we'll try and have a party. So you can actually get in here and try to direct their social interactions. I can have Mercedes here try and compliment. Maybe tell her a joke. Now she doesn't like jokes. But there could be a reason for that. It's probably because she's not very playful. We can look at her personality, Yeah she's not very playful at all. So let's try somebody else. Let's try to catch up with old Ross here and tell him a joke. O, he's going to play pool in the new billiard room. The neighbours just got here. I'll let them play pool while I put the neighbours in. It's getting kind of dark. Let's put a light bulb here.
Let's go back to the social side of things here. Let's try telling complementing Ross here. He liked it. So I could continue conversing with him. Actually try to engineer back and forth relationships. The whole interesting point about this was it's always matching a whole lot of distraction we use with the architecture. We decided to do the same thing with the people. So with the people we tried to treat them very abstractly, which is why you don't actually hear what they say. It's actually up to the player to imagine a story going on between people. So they're having a chat with each other now.
Now they should be liking each other. Now see, they can kiss! The options that are available at any given time on the menu here, depend on the states between the characters. So the relationship between the two has to be very high before they'll ever kiss. I can go over here and look at their relationship right now. So he really likes her (plus 45). We qualified it. So really, this is the essence of what this game is going to be.
I should mention that this game is about six months from completion, what you seeing is kind of a fairly early alpha version of it. The essence of the gameplay should be that the user is forced into this decision between the materialistic side of the game and the social side of the game. As I said before. You're investing their time. That's the one resource you do not have more of in this game. You can spend their time to make money and then buy things. Or you can spend their time to develop relationships both between the family members and between the neighbours. So the user is forced into this value judgement between the material side and the social side. To me that's the most interesting aspect of these kind of games. You can force the user into this kind of dilemma. And that's much better to me than trying to impose a very strong goal structure.
Just to close I'd like to say that I'd like to see games trying to approach real life a little more. And try to connect what we do in the everyday world to the things that we model on our computers, and think about this connection. The value systems.
Since we came out with Simcity a lot of people have come to us asking us to do the real version of Simcit: to really plan a city or to really plan social systems. That scares the hell out of me. I know how incorrect these models can be and how inherently unpredictable these systems are. So the idea that we would use these systems in that way, really scares me. On the other hand using these systems to clarify values, and to help us explore the boundaries of things within ourselves, is a much more appropriate use.