this video speaks for itself. the power of play is undeniable.
We were at at Playful ’11 a few weeks back: the annual one-day London event dedicated to all things play, game and gamification. The day was a smorgasbord of insight, intrigue and all round cool stuff; Here are a few of the things that particularly caught our eye.
Playing with cities rather than in them
Some of the most charming and oft cited examples of play embed game mechanics in the real world; Pacmanhatten and Nike Grid are two examples you will likely be familiar with. But what if the city was not the playground, but a player itself? Matthew Sheret made the observation that initiatives like Tower Bridge twitter feed allow you to have a relationship with a part of your city you know well but seldom interact with, and teased the idea that buildings, monuments could be more than reatures of than the playing field, but players in a different, much bigger game.
Games can be art
And not in the ‘interactive installation’ sense, but in the bonafide, joypad-in-hand sense. A talk from Richard Lemarchand (Lead Game Designer at Naughty Dog, the studio behind titles such as Crash Bandicoot and the Uncharted series) on his approach to game design drew on a few beautiful examples of what he called ‘experiential games’: games to be appreciated aesthetically and emotionally rather than competitively. You may have seen flOw and Safari for PS3 before, but the PC based The Graveyard and Dinner Date are lesser known and really help make the case for the artistic merit of genuine, playable games. As well as being beautiful, examples like these remind us that play is not just points and prizes, but about creating engaging experiences, and these can be richer than the application of a basic ‘how do I win’ mechanic.
Another thought from Richard in reference to the animations he put in Uncharted 2 when players tried to punch the innocent villagers (you can see these here). The insight was that this behaviour is not a sign of malevolence, but demonstrates the player’s inherent curiosity to test the boundaries of the gameworld. Anyone who has ever spent some time working out which objects you can and can’t interact with in a game world will be familiar with this. Rewarding this curiosity, even with something simple like a=n animation, brings tangible delight to the player. Some brands pay attention to this well: The labour Apple have put into Siri’s playful attitude (try repeatedly asking her to tell you a story) or Google’s many nods to internet culture, are all ways of rewarding this curiosity to test the boundaries of the game in a playful way. Even a low-fi example like the bottom of an Innocent smoothie carton is still an application of this principle, and although another Playful speaker Louise Downe cited this in warning of the weirdness of play without a personality, rewarding curiosity can be a way for brands to develop their character, and create charming, effective communications at the same time.
We’re all the borg now
The fact that the sci-fi works of fiction of the 70’s and 80’s have set our expectations of the future was one of much debate throughout the day, with little agreement as to whether the future we have landed in is one that should be cheered or booed. Regardless how one may feel about that, there’s no denying that the cybernetic powers those writers fantasised about, the heads up displays and bionic limbs, are now an accessible part of our present. In his talk ‘We’re all cyborgs now’ Sami Niemelä addressed this point and drew some eyebrow raising conclusions, one being that a singularity might just sneak up on us without us noticing. It’s a valid point considering the advancements in brain/computer interface, and the connected devices that amaze us today will most likely be replaced by directly connected people, a fact that could easily accelerate the ‘explosion of a superintelligence’. Whether or not you want to entertain that notion, it’s worth considering the implications of an Internet of brains, and fun to imagine the role that play, perhaps fuelled by the fantasies of MMORPG enthusiasts, will have in the bringing about and establishment of that possible future.
In a demonstration of what can only be described as ‘the coolest toys ever’ Chris O’ Shea ran through a selection of some of the most desirable gaming ‘appcessories’ – physical objects that work in conjunction with apps – that are on offer. Examples ranged from novelty docks like the iPhone pinball and jackpot machines, to the app blaster gun App Blaster that puts back in the tactile feedback Apple have stripped away with their buttonless device, through to the Mojector that goes one further to blow up a space shooting game to wall size. However the toys on display that inspired real envy of today’s children were the ones that gave the user a co-creative role. The LEGO Life of George, game, (covered more extensively here) in which the app provides digital feed back on your real world creation is step forward for the ‘appcessory’ idea, moving from augmenting apps with peripherals to using them as core components of a game, and having a brand like LEGO behind it will hopefully help drive this market into even more interesting territories. And Chris’ own project, an app which provides an on screen ‘driver’ for a car you build yourself out of whatever you please, returns the digital toy to the imaginative, creative, learning tool that the old-fashioned part of me worries will get lost in a world of digital natives.
Whale Trail is awesome
The last talk of the day from Ustwo could be viewed in two ways: an inside glimpse into the trails and tribulations of mobile game development, or a blatant plug for the studio’s latest creation, Whale Trail. While it absolutely succeeded in both regards, the fact that I purchased the game as soon as I could is perhaps an indicator of the presentations biggest win. Mind you, as a gorgeous looking pick up and play addicto-fest with an irreverent sense of humour, it is pitch perfect for my personal mobile gaming interests, and if you’re bored of birds, which you must be by now, I would heartily recommend giving it a try
So – six things out of a thousand, but six definitely worth sharing. A belated thanks to all those at Playful for a great day, and have a look on their blog for links to more of the presentations and other outputs of the day.
This weekend I spent an undisclosed number of hours playing Life of George, LEGO’s foray into iPhone-enhanced gaming. The premise is simple: buy the boxed set of 144 coloured bricks, then download a free app that presents objects which you build out of bricks within the allotted time. Fast, accurate construction is rewarded with points that are calculated when you use the iPhone to capture an image of your work.
The game is pleasingly distracting – on the difficult setting it kept me engaged long enough to complete the twelve levels. The context is straightfroward – George is a a typical office worker (think Dilber but better travelled), who takes photos to chronicle his adventures. Each page of his photo album constitutes a level, and challenges you to construct ten LEGO objects from George’s photographs. Complete each level and unlock the next (or play two player, taking turns to build as quickly as you can).
Life of George demonstrates the potential of mobile devices to ‘close the loop’ with physical toys, games and equipment. Having the device set the tasks and assess the performance while the blocks provide the means of actual ‘play’ uses both parts of the system to their best advantage, creating a seamess hybrid real/virtual experience. Having said that, where the game falls down is in the broader ‘gameplay’ – the premise of building George’s photos is simple, but not particularly engaging. The gameplay does not actually advance George’s life at all – the player has no impact on the ‘story’. To make matters worse, after twelve levels the heroic adventurer is rewarded with a screen that simply says ‘more levels coming soon’. In the age of Donkey Kong that would have been acceptable, we expect a little more narrative resolution these days.
Arriving around the same time as Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure, Life of George starts to show us how mainstream the ‘real virtuality’ of play will become – particularly when we leverage existing play platforms like LEGO and well established digital platforms like the iPhone. In the near future will see a lot more of this, specifically I think that we can soon expect…
- Something for the kids. George is targetted at… well guys like George (which I am guessing is how LEGO understand their older geek audience). It’s 14+ not for difficulty but because seven years olds might not see the relevance of building a martini from the office party, or a copy of Munch’s Scream.
- The Life of Citizen Cane. Even if the gameplay is limited, we should be able to be more immersed in a story. The Final Fantasy franchise has finely honed the craft of gluing very limited gameplay together with long, meaningful cut-scenes – surely LEGO can learn a little from that.
- Making a real difference. The really exciting part will be when the play activity (building objects with bricks) actually integrates with the storyline in a meaningful way. You want to get over to the other side of the river? Biuld a bridge. You want to woo the beautiful maiden? Build a rose. As our actions become more meaningful within a narrative, and as that narrative becomes one that we feel we have a stake in… well, I know I’ll be rushing out to by the next installment.
Activision is taking the Spyro franchise to another level, this time you will purchase your character in the game via a physical figurine. This toy can be mounted onto a dock named “The Portal of Power”. The game itself plays like a normal, fun adventure game in the classic style of franchise, but the incorporation of physical objects is innovative even by the standards of the kids it seeks to target, and for Activision, an effective driver of staggered sales.
Each figurine will maintain the unique characteristics of the character youve leveled up in your game at home, but when you take your figurine to your friends house you can just stick your toy onto the Portal of Power and continue your quest there. Your character is playable across any platform – Xbox, PS3, Wii, PC, iPhone, or iPad, making it a truly cross-platform experience (one that becomes far more relevant when you try to take your toy to your friends place for a sleep over).
There are 32 playable characters, meaning 32 purchasable figurines in total at roughly 8 bucks a pop, and expansion levels cost a few dollars. This stuff adds up so parents, get your wallets ready. For Activision, innovation comes with a price.