Talk at Interaction16

I just got back from Interaction in Helsinki having given my talk about how Conversations are the New Interfaces.

I have been blown away by the response to and kind words about my talk. I think this is a conversation (!) worth continuing. Stay tuned for details on that.

Here now is a collection of photos I found of my talk (for my personal archive):

Firewatch lowers the narrative bar for games and that is fine

I was really anticipating Firewatch and I was sorely disappointed as was of course bound to happen.

This bit I liked:

The best part about the game

A video posted by Alper Cugun (@alper) on

The art and environment are the stars of the game. The attention to detail and craft that went into creating the world and nature you are walking through are breathtaking. It’s a nice touch that you get to take pictures and keep pictures.

What’s problematic about the game is that even people who don’t like it as a game think that the writing is really good. This is just not the case. The setup is embarrassingly bad, juvenile, and sexist. The cliched story of cheap self-pity and codependence made us want to quit the game then and there. As many people have remarked, the dialogue between the two characters is good and manages to entertain at times and move things forward despite the poor setup. The actual plot and reveal on which the game hinges is awful and inconsequential. The other characters and what happens with them do nothing more than distract from the core of the game: the natural environment & talking with Delilah.

I get that gamers don’t read literature and have historically low expectations when it comes to story. But when so many people think that the writing in Firewatch is good, it lowers the bar for all games. That is something that has been happening for a long time already and it has led us right here.

Lots of people are happy with Firewatch however poor and unsatisfying its story is. But maybe there could also be works with good writing? And maybe those should not be called games with all the expectations and limitations that come with the term?

A not so secret Hitler

Rob Dubbin at the Awl has written a comprehensive account of what is wrong with Secret Hitler. I agree with his critique but I want to highlight one issue in particular.

I tried ignoring Secret Hitler but their design notes kept making their way into my twitter. I skimmed through them and found them to be well put together. The last one about illustration and graphic design however convinced me that the game goes well beyond just bad taste.

The problem is that the identity cards for fascist players in the game (shown below) display them als lizards where the liberal identities are shown as human. Fascists are inhuman, get it?

fascists

This is simplistic and immoral. If it’s not obvious why, here are three reasons:

  1. Depicting certain groups of people like vile animals is a way of objectifying them and an excuse to exterminate them. One of the lessons of history is that we don’t produce this kind of propaganda.
  2. Depicting the fascists as animals is not a reversal that makes it all right. The fascist of my fascist is still a fascist.
  3. Depicting fascists as intrinsically different from other people and easily recognizable as such is a deeply wrong and misleading fantasy.

This way of thinking is part of an ongoing trivialization of fascism and spreading it is harmful.

As Rob Dubbin says in his piece:

There should be a high bar for invoking this person, and there should be such a thing as falling well short of it.

The people making Secret Hitler are obviously intelligent, skilled and have vast resources at their disposal. I can only guess why they would make a game about this topic and then do it so poorly.

Breaking into the English speaking world

Last week we finally got featured with Bycatch on Boingboing and Fast Company thanks to our invitation to the XOXO festival. It is amazing to see what that attention does and what kind of effect that has on sales.

Now that we have finally arrived in the English speaking world we can relax a bit and keep pushing out the marketing we had planned all along. I would be curious to see whether something similar happens at some point for Japanese and Chinese speaking online communities.

DOTA night at Meltdown Esports Bar

Dota night at Meltdown

Yesterday I attended the weekly Dota2 night at Meltdown esports bar for the first time. I’m looking for people who I can play with regularly because going out into solo queue is becoming a bit tedious and unpredictable. There is a small crowd of people there who play 5v5’s in a private lobby against the Meltdown London cafe. It’s a lot of shouting and mostly fun.

What strikes me when I go to these get togethers is that however different the people are, there is a shared culture because everybody reads /r/dota2 and watches the same streams and tournaments. It is fairly homogenized everywhere with the exception of China which is insular with its own client, servers and a slew of native language media.

I was also happy to see that the gender balance wasn’t as one-sided as I had feared. There’s still a long way to go but what I saw at the bar makes me optimistic.

The second victorious team

Esports spectating in the U-Bahn

DAC Grand Final in the U-Bahn

So it turns out that 3G over Blau in Berlin is good enough to watch a Twitch stream of the DAC finals between Evil Geniuses and Vici Gaming and allowed me to watch the amazing Storm Spirit performance by SumaiL in the last match.

The finals started at around 8AM (China Standard Time) and unfortunately were a clean sweep for EG so they were over pretty quickly. Most impressive was the fact that SumaiL, a fifteen year old kid from Pakistan, stole the show. Watch a summary below.

Counter Strike: Global Offensive

GeForce GTX AllStar Tournament

A couple of weeks ago I was invited to attend a NVIDIA sponsored Counter Strike: Global Offensive tournament in association with 99 damage at the Berlin Game Science Center.

CS:GO is an amazing team based sport where five terrorists try to set and explode a bomb on a bomb site (you can see sites A and B marked on the maps) while counter-terrorists try to prevent the bomb placement or defuse it. Players need to have a combination of mechanical aim/shoot skills combined with tactical insight at an incredibly high tempo. The difference between life or death in any of these games rests in a fraction of a second combined with an awareness of what is happening around the entire map. Esports are sports that are just as demanding mentally and physically as any other.

You don’t have to watch the entire video of the Dreamhack finale below but it can’t hurt to watch a couple of matches with the commentary (The walls are transparent for spectators. They aren’t for players.):

The culture around this particular game is its own and somewhat different from people who for instance play SC2 or MOBAs. Attending this tournament was a lot of fun and I got to see some high level play as well as a demonstration of case modding by a company with its own branded energy drink.

Panamax

Panamax time

This week I got to play the board game Panamax at a game night here in Berlin. Though it is slightly complicated I was struck by how good an adaptation of container shipping this game is.

The game is about getting contracts to move your cargo from one side of the canal to the other using either your own ships or the ships of other companies. The core mechanic of the game is the fact that canal locks can only contain 4 units of ships and if there is a ship behind you that won’t fit, it will push you out when it moves. This will cost the pushing ship a movement action but it will not cost the ship that is being pushed.

An interesting element in the game is that you as a player have private money and you are managing a shipping company with money of its own. The shipping company uses its money as working capital to perform actions. As a player you start out with one share in your own company and you can use your private money to buy shares in companies including your own.

The cost of a share is paid to the company in effect raising capital and the price of the stock is increased by one. At the end of each turn a company pays out dividends to all players who own a share in it if it can pay out to all of them. If the company does not have enough money to pay out dividends, nobody gets anything and the company share price drops by two. Shares are liquidated at the end of the game at their current vue to add to the capital of players (which are victory points).

This way of interweaving player interests with each other is incredibly interesting and has been executed really elegantly compared to the complexity it adds to the gameplay. Besides combining destinies using the shares, you can also load your cargo on somebody else’s ship. This way figuring out which actions benefit whom exactly quickly becomes intractable.

What’s also funny is that cargo that is stuck in the canal incurs costs at the end of each turn. If a company cannot pay all of these costs from its own capital, it will get it from the player managing it. This means that companies are not limited liability or that managing directors are fined for mismanagement both of which are interesting.

All in all Panamax is a very successful eurogame that actually fits fairly nicely with its theme. At each step it feels like you are taking important decisions for the company you manage.

Console gaming after the fact: Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 is an extremely questionable game catering to the war fantasies of American hawks. I played the fully German version and having to make sense of a war scene where people are shouting stuff at you in German only adds to the weirdness.

Every time you die also you get quotes about war and peace by such notables as Cheney, Rumsfeld and Gandhi. I have no idea what the people who made this game were even thinking.

In the German (and Japanese) version also the “No Russian” mission is weird. You’re in a terrorist group that is massacring a Russian airport but any time you hurt a civilian the mission restarts. It turns out that this is something region specific.

For the rest it’s just a bunch of shooting around the world with a questionable (and increasingly incoherent) neo-terrorist plot straight from a Steven Seagal movie.