Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Geek Brain on Toddler TV

This past holiday I spent the week off of work at home with my sick child. As a result, we could not go out that much and stayed in to watch TV. TV aimed at toddlers. A lot of TV aimed at toddlers.

At first it seems like brain-numbing colorful and simple characters talking at the audience with a lot of awkward pauses to allow for a reply. It has been a while since I've watched the Electric Company or Mr. Rogers, but I don't recall the dead-into-the-camera stares and 3 beat pauses, but this seems to be a common trope of all children's programming.

But after a while of exposure, my brain started to break down some of the elements of these shows, and this is roughly my take on them.

  • Sofia the First: Middle daughter from Modern Family is brought into a Molyneux-like fairy-tale kingdom where she must learn to live the simple life of the top 1%. Wayne Brady is a rabbit that is street-smart and ethnic (i.e. something he has never done before outside of the Chappelle Show). Wakko of the Animaniacs is a magician that behaves like a borderline pedo, curses the entire royal ball, and gets away without blame. Not sure why, but there is a magic swing at royalty school that serves no purpose other than to throw people into a fountain.
  • Chuggington: People and train engines living in an idealized Marxist society. Every train and every person has a role they must perform to support the greatness of society as a whole, and no other pleasure is greater than getting the job done.
  • Octonauts: Marine biologist furries bumbling their way through underwater adventures and proving how little they know of the sea. Seems like the setup backstory to a Bond villian. Undersea lair. Genetically altered minions, or whatever a vegi-mal is. One of these characters will have a psychotic break, eradicate the rest of the base. I don't think it will be Dr. Inkling, as he does nothing but sit in the library. Peso could have a hidden Napoleon complex and he does have the medical knowledge. But best bet is on Shellington. He's a walking victim in every other episode, has the intelligence the rest do not, and is one bad day from unleashing a grudge on the entire world.
There is death behind those dark, cold eyes.

  • Mickey Mouse Club: This is a series on pure existential horror. Every episode starts with Mickey silently approaching the audience from the woods, Blair Witch Style. He then chants a magical incantation to create the clubhouse out of his own body parts, I'm assuming of non-Euclidean geometry. After a roll call of clubhouse members, Mickey leads a chant to activate Toodles, which is functionally kid-show shorthand for either Scientology, Chthulu, or both. Toodles provides 3 to 4 random tools for the day which will then solve a problem. These problems are situational, so to know what tools will be useful, Toodles or Mickey must be controlling the fates of all who walk in the clubhouse. After all tools have been used, a tribalistic dance is performed and the clubhouse disappears into the woods.
  • Minnie's Bowtique: Short vignettes of how Minnie cannot function unless a problem can be solved with a bow somehow. The bird will remind you of Cindy Lauper for some reason.
  • Little Einsteins: A show created around the scientifically rejected notion that exposure to classical music will make your child a genius. What really does set a high IQ is the ability of critical thinking, which is entirely ignored throughout this show. Example encounter: the team needs to get over the pyramids and they are in a rocket. Solution: audience must sing to make the rocket pogo stick over the pyramid. What the hell kinda message is that?! How is my child supposed to function if she believes that if you have a rocket and you need to go over something, that means singing on a pogo stick.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Video Games or Murder Simulators?

Once again we find ourselves in a time of national tragedy. We see the same patterns. Mass media 24-hour coverage. Photos of the killer and victims. Tear-stained faces barely able to keep it together as they are bombarded with interviewer questions. Experts and psychologists attempting to explain the how and why of this event.

Before I dig into this, through no point in this article will I mention the names of any suspected killers. I feel every mention of their names functions only to create celebrity and mythos about them, when really they do not deserve the attention put to them. I would prefer that these mass murderers gain nothing from me.

Greg Hughes from the O&A show puts it in a much better light than I do:

I believe that there are some things that happen that go beyond our understanding and comprehension. We, as humans, have a natural curiosity or need to find causation, especially when the events are so horrific we hope to prevent them from ever happening again. 

But events such as these do not have simple causes, nor do they lend themselves to simple solutions. How can we prevent this from happening again? I have no answers.

Would gun control help? 2nd Amendment! Ban guns! And that is about as deep as we get as both sides are reluctant to give even the hint of political ground to lead to a compromise. The NRA has announced that they will be rallying against gun control this Friday. Their argument? "If we're going to talk about the Second Amendment, then let's also talk about the First Amendment, and Hollywood, and the video games that teach young kids how to shoot heads." So to paraphrase, we will not discuss limits set on one Constitutional right until we revoke another Constitutional right.

But what about those violent video games? Aren't we just teaching our kids how to be psychotic killers on a nightly basis? What kind of sick mind would play these "murder simulators"? Hasn't everyone heard of some scientific article from somewhere that showed violent video games leads to violent behavior? People don't get extra lives, so we must be breaking our children from the consequences of reality. 

This argument comes up all of the time. By my own rough observations, news of the Newton shooting hit around 10am. By lunchtime social media was loaded with gun control arguments  By 2pm, national media was discussing how the killer played violent video games. How'd they know this fact? I'm assuming they learned the killer was young and male, and decided to go with lowest common denominator information. COD:BO2 sold $500 million in the first day so chances are the killer had the game, breathed air, and ate food. 

What you really don't hear on the news that often is the difference between causation and correlation. The news states facts as if every detail is set in a long chain of dominoes (causation), so every new piece of information will uncover a new pathway and new explanation of the events that occurred  It makes sense from the business model of the 24-hour news cycle. They want you attached to the TV, so every new insight must be important and revealing so that you stick around to let them sell you soap. But after a while, you run out of details and need to trump the other networks. And one of the go-to articles is violent video games.

So let's take a moment to discuss correlation. Have you ever noticed how storks are used to symbolize the birth of a new baby? Well why a stork? Because in northern Europe, storks would nest in rooftops. They get the most shelter by nesting between the roof and chimney. Where are the warmest chimneys for the winter? Where new born babies live. Want to find the house with a newborn, then you can look for the stork. Did the stork cause the baby? No. 

What about that scientific study about the connection to violent video games and violent behavior? We've been hearing about this since the NES days. Surely science cannot be argued against. If you were to argue against science, you may as well become a Creationist.

Well hold on. You can actually argue about science. Scientists do it all the time. I do not buy into Creationism as a valid concept, but I am open to discussing the finer details of how evolution works and has happened over the course of existence. Scientists are constantly proving or disproving previous studies to eventually find out new discoveries on why things work the way they do.

And for the articles that make the connection between games and violence? Well I highly doubt most of the free world actually reads those articles, but here's a list of them: 

Four unrelated scientific articles from over the last decade. All of them telling the same story: that scientific studies that show causation between video games and violent behavior are flawed from bias samples and lack of proof. Science, doing science-y things, proving that video games are NOT creating a generation of killers. We're creating a generation of gamers. The chances that a mass murderer would have played a violent video game is just as likely as an Eagle Scout that has played one. I AM an Eagle Scout and I've made one.

Still not convinced? Have you watched teens play a first-person shooter and wonder why they can be enthralled for hours shooting random people they do not know? Well here's the big secret of why it is so entertaining: we're not training people to kill; we're training people to play tag. 

Every see kids play tag outside in the yard? Ever see the game escalate so they use sticks, fingers, or whatever to pretend to shoot each other rather than make a physical tag? Just like that good ol' fashioned, wholesome Cops & Robbers or Cowboys & Indians that kids used to play back when computers were the size of Olympic pools and we didn't have to deal with this rise in violence. Well we, the video game developers, have made the exact same experience, but now you can play from your living room and not argue about whether I "shot" you or not.

And that rise in violence? It isn't happening. In fact we are seeing a reduction in gun violence since the early 90s. You could make a clearer connection to bad hair band music and gun violence than you could with current video games.

From the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
So what is on the rise? Media coverage of these violent events. It feels like we are experiencing it more because you hear about it more. The second a 911 call goes out, you receive live feed information of the incident over all the news stations, Twitter, Facebook, and such. Then you get in-depth analysis of what happened, computer simulations, expert opinions, images of victims, discussions of what was had for breakfast to the point of absurdity until the next news event happens.

So thanks to the modern news media, for milking us in this time of grief. It is an unfortunate time when the only respectable journalists on TV is the guy on Comedy Central and one-half of Dumb and Dumber.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Selecting Games for Family Vacation

Once a year, my wife's family gets together for a summer vacation. Now that there are two grandchildren in the mix (my daughter and my nephew), vacation planning has become less about going out and doing things and more about sitting around the pool/beach or other baby-friendly environment. Though we still get an evening out here or there while someone in the family takes a shift sitting for the sleeping kids, most evenings are relegated to sitting on the deck and playing a board game.

Because of this frequent nightly event, the family turns to me with suggestions because I, after all, am the "game guy" of the family. Unfortunately, being a "game guy" comes loaded a mixed bag for this situation. yes I can suggest a wide-range of board games for this group to play to break up the Monopoly/Trivial Pursuit stand-bys. But this audience is familiar with the ol' stand-bys and anything beyond that carries the sense of game-geekery that turns off the group from a potentially engaging night. I wonder if somaliers have this problem when trying to get friends to try a really excellent vintage, but they would really just like to stick with the box wine.

Check out how the light cascades through this Boone's Farm
For this year, I have gathered together an assortment of games to try out. I picked them out specifically for this audience, but with the mindset to appeal to a wide range of age and interests.

Here are the games that I subjected the family and what their response was:

Settlers of Catan: The masterpiece that changed board games forever. 1995 Spiele des Jahres award winner. It is such a great game because adults and children can play together without the children being lost or adults being bored (play Candy Land as an adult, I dare you)

Being 30-something means playing board games in the backyard while in slacks and dress shoes.

  • Family Reaction - Whoa, what is this? German? This is already too complicated. Hexagons? Dice rolls? Mostly just arm flailing and wreckage of people giving up. Overall, a complete catastrophe with most players assuming that German children must be physicists and engineers from birth to get this game.
    Gunther, your model of the neodymium molecule fails to address the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. How do you expect to finish the 1st grade with this work?
  • Evaluation - maybe too much game for this crowd out of the gate. Too many things going on and it gets confusing very quickly if you are used to Trivial Pursuit or Boggle.
My new favorite game

Cards Against Humanity: This game can best be described as the evil version of Apples to Apples. If you've never played Apples to Apples, the game is simple. You need a group of players, and each round, one player becomes a judge. The remaining players use cards in their hands that have a word or phrase to best match the card put on the table. Players get to argue their match and the judge makes the final call. In Apples to Apples, you sometimes get combinations that are unintentionally hilarious whether from the pairing or how someone makes the argument for it. I've seen "Operation" be used as an example of "Selfish", or "Bangkok" paired with "Dirty". All fun with the party you are in, and only as risque as you'd like. Cards Against Humanity throws the subtlety out the window and just comes up with the worst possible combinations that are still inappropriately funny. 
  • Family Reaction - surprisingly positive. They understood what they needed to do just from a 1-minute description of the game. Outside of a few uncomfortable pairings somehow everyone enjoyed being ragingly un-PC for an evening.
  • Evaluations - Huge success. Though one must be careful as to who they play with. It must be a close group of friends and no one can be too sensitive. Something in this deck is made to offend you directly, so get over it before you even open the box.
Not as cool as it used to be.

Apples to Apples: I brought this version of the game just in case Cards Against Humanity didn't go over too well. But after you play CAH, there really is no going back. This one sat in the corner collecting dust. If Apples to Apples is a party playing Twister, Cards Against Humanity is the party from Eyes Wide Shut.

Should have been a sign to not work with your significant other. And then there's Vanilla Sky.

Ticket To Ride: This game was selected for the family not only because it is another Spiele des Jahres award winner, but what you do on a turn is very simple when compared to Settlers. In Ticket to Ride, everyone at the table is creating lines of railroads across the country. You have point-to-point locations you are trying to tie together. Each turn you can either build 1 track, get more resources, or get more locations. Pretty simple.

Sort of like the land grab in Monopoly, only you are  not stuck in Atlantic City

  • Family Reaction - completely loved the game. Similar to Cards Against Humanity, they grok games that can be explained in a minute or less. Some of the players at the table are killer player types and for some reason they enjoyed blocking pathways as fast as they could, giggling the whole way. And one of these was my wife.
  • Evaluations - This is an excellent entry level game for folks into the realm of good, modern board games. Consider this a gateway game to Settlers. Though gauging my specific audience, I would go from Ticket to Ride, then Carcassonne, then Settlers.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Game Production – Back to the Kitchen Analogy

I have been a game producer (or variant of the role: project manager, product owner, product manager, pain-in-the-ass) for 6 years and counting. I’ve worked 2-month game projects with bare bones teams to massive 3-year blockbusters where it seems the sun never sets on some part of the development. One question continually comes up when people find out what I do, and that questions is, “can you fix my PS3/Xbox?” The answer is no. Check if your console is within warranty, but at this stage of the console cycle it is only 18 months for the next round of tech to be out. The second most common question I get is, “what exactly does a producer do?

This image is so 6 months ago

This is extremely difficult to answer and it seems no one really knows. The title changes from studio to studio. Most often in interviews for a producer role, I am usually asking that studio what does a producer role mean in this office. It’s a bit of an anomaly. Designers, artists, and programmers have a sense of familiarity and process of the daily grind as they move from job to job. And the life of anyone in entertainment tends to be very gypsy-like as projects begin and end or studios open and shutter. But producers are enigmas. We can sense each other and share in the pains and processes, but for the most part we are in the roles that don’t actually make anything, so it is rather tough to say what is it that you actually do as a producer. Much like the definition of what a game is, I’ve heard various descriptions during my time, but none of them really fully explain the job. “Producers are the net that catch all the spinning plates and if a plate falls, they put it back on the stick.” “Producers are the cattle prod behind all developers.” “Producers are a carrot on the stick and a boot in the butt.” “Producers make pretty spreadsheets and let us know how far behind we are.” “Producers are annoyances that stop by desks and remind you how stressed you are.” “Producers get the best desks, the second largest paychecks, and figure out how everything is going to be completed.”

For the last 6 years of doing my job, I still have a very hard time describing what it is that I do. Then I was faced with a home repair job that felt very much like what I dealt with day-to-day and I believe becomes an excellent metaphor for game production.

At around 3am on a weekday night (which is when all home catastrophes happen) I awoke to find a non-trivial amount of water in my kitchen. Since this was 3am, everything moved forward in my brain in slow motion as I connected the pieces while scanning the kitchen through only one open, yet bleary eye. Though it took an age to figure out without the help of caffeine, the mystery of the new lake in my kitchen turned out to be the result of a leaky pipe and my dishwasher water now emptying out everywhere except the pipe it was meant to go through.

My expertise in plumbing came from TV. So I beat my head with a pipewrench and jammed a finger into my eye.

I mopped up the water before it caused any damage while spilling out a litany of curses strung together in a tapestry of colorful expression ranging from the obtuse to just plain rambling. A coffee and flashlight later, I found a fragged P-trap under my sink that was letting out all of the water. Once I had removed the problem piece, I was faced with an unusual problem: how do I fix this mess?

My home is a century old. No, literally. It was built just before the Titanic set sail. Much of the construction of my house is new tech over old tech. You can make out where the coal used to be shoveled in from the driveway. The electric is a bizarre series of systems rather than room-by-room (one breaker controls lights in the kitchen, hallway, dining room, master bed room, and guest room, but nothing else). Much of the basic structure of the house was built in a time when there was no set standards and many things were built by hand with what was available nearby. This was the case with my sink drain.

From the floor I had a steel pipe sticking straight up at a non-standard width. Clearly this had been around since the Downton Abbey days. Coming down from the sink was a modern steel pipe of standard size. And this two pipes were about two-feet apart from each other.

Skype?! But how will it replace my complex system of pull-string bells?

Once I had arrived at the Home Depot (which opens extremely early for contractors and home owner catastrophes) I realized an additional dilemma. All modern P-traps are made of plastic. I needed to go from steel to plastic and back again, spanning across the inside of my cabinet while all connections being watertight and letting gravity do the work.

This is where the production part kicks in. As a producer, you are the first one to take a step back and evaluate the situation. It does not matter whether you are creating a new innovation in gaming or you are just polishing a game feature in Madden '13 that has existing since Madden '88, you will be faced with something where there is a significant translation problem, and the piece to fix it is not ideal. Nearly every dev can create solutions, but it is up to the producer to find the optimal solution. Fixing a sink may not have any effect on the electric, but in a game system it very well could be connected.

Someone in Tiburon is coding a Turkey Leg feature. This man knows what I'm talking about.

The producers job is the get everything from the sink to the drain in the fastest, cheapest, and best possible way, even if that solution is ugly as hell. A producer does not necessarily do the fix him/herself, but they should be familiar enough with every other working piece that they can make calls and suggestions for the developer to get the fix in right the first time. If they were good enough, they saw the problem before anyone else and had all the parts ready for when that day came. Producers are planners, translators, and problem-solvers. They excel when they are presented with a situation that there is no set process and they need to make something impossible happen. No one tells you how you are going to produce a Game with Fame event with Slipknot while they are in tour in Tokyo and your are in Manhattan, but as a producer you figure it all out.

Nice guy and a Frontlines fan. Who knew?

What I purchased from the Home Depot that morning was a bizarre collection of parts that formed together into a MacGyvered interpretation of a P-trap. It worked flawlessly and I still had time to eat breakfast and go  to work on time. To this day I have not had a single drop of water come out of this system, so for the time-being, I do not have to deal with swimming in my kitchen.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Team Tabletop #5: the Rap

One of the members of Team Tabletop ended up creating a rap as a follow-up to the mission write-up. I cannot claim credit for this one, as any rap I would make would be on par with Vanilla Ice's "Ninja Rap".

Here's the lyrics:

Roll for initiative, toss out the beagle
Hidin from the spotters cause the airstrike is lethal
I destroy the tank and pass the balsamic
Layin down mines and these dummies fall on it
But that ain't the end of a turn-based tale
Cause we gaussed the motherfuckers and LRMed out the whale

I personally would like to see this sung by hologram Tupac with Digital Underground.

Google Tupac and Digital Underground. I dare you.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Team Tabletop #5 - End of the Battletech Campaign

On the Saturday before Father’s Day, our battle-tested group of game developers gathered together to fight the final event in our ongoing Battletech campaign.

At 5am that morning, our GM sent out the mission details. We were to enter enemy territory in an urban environment. Our primary objective was to destroy at least 80% of the enemy forces, which consist of every enemy we had met in the campaign previously, but had survived. Thanks to our success at the communications tower and repair facility, they would not be repaired, nor would they have reinforcements. This game would be the culmination of all previous games in the series.

We had a secondary goal of destroying a building that had the enemies’ generals and other authority figures. Once they had been alerted to our presence, they would evacuate, so we had 5 rounds of battle to accomplish this mission.

Our third and final goal was to have at least 50% of our team survive. Just as a specification from the GM, that included if our mech was destroyed, but our character ejected safely and ran like hell. Obviously he did not expect us to survive, either because this was a dangerous mission, or because he’s seen us play.

The usual suspects gathered in our usual space, this time making an effort to start early as we have been warned that this game had the potential to go long. In light of this early start and the weather holding at beautiful 70-degree and sunny day, we gathered around noon and enjoyed the weather and grilled our food.

It should be noted that most of the members of our group have been playing tabletop games since our time in high school, and in that time we do tend to go back to the food that worked for us back then (pizza, chips, soda, etc.) But as our tabletop gathering has continued, we have slowly been bringing in our collective culinary expertise into the fray. We set a monumental summer spread of gastronomical delights, it is worth discussing. I should note that I have found in my lifetime of geek-onometry that the ability to cook well has served me to be a better geek and more successful person in countless ways.

I destroy the tank and pass the balsamic

Our menu:
  • Teriyaki & honey marinated chicken skewers
  • Garden fresh salad and tomatoes with the juice of a freshly squeezed orange
  • Spinach and sausage stuffed mushrooms
  • Watermelon
  • Chips and dip
  • Beer, soda, lemonade, iced tea, and seltzer
  • Bucket of chocolate chip cookies*
  • And a bunch of stuff that was not consumed, such as homemade capicola, variety of cheeses, and fudge brownies

*I have noticed a direct correlation to the presence of these cookies at a gaming session and the likelihood of GM decisions working out in the player’s favor.

We sat on the deck, looking out over Jersey suburbia with the Empire State Building and Freedom Tower cresting over the horizon of homes discussing possible repairs. We gathered around a Droid tablet with our repair times broken down into a Google Doc spreadsheet we created earlier in the campaign. This doc calculated overall repair times against time remaining, so we could make a quick assessment of the damage and get back into the fight.
In our last mission, we had junked two of our most powerful mechs beyond repair. The other two were lightly scratched. Plus we added a very beefy Clan Mech as the reward from the last mission, so that was definitely going into battle this time. We put the Clan Mech into the hands of our rounded out pilot, and then did a quick repair job to get our best gunners loaded up with close-proximity gear. We were split for a bit on whether we should give the best pilot the scout to zip around, or let him hang in the background and launch volleys of long-range missiles. We finally decided nimble was the best course of action and it had served us well so far. We snuffed out the citronella and went back inside, ready for battle.

Now it's time to die... in a brightly colored rainbow block land.

At the gaming table, our dutiful GM had used what was available to construct an elaborate downtown complex. But what was readily available was my daughters building blocks and Noah’s Ark set. These items have become handy in the past, even providing the impetus for our slogan “LeRM the Whale”, but never have these toys been used in such nuanced fashion. It seems the fine people of Duplo have made certain that not only are their toys perfect for small hands learning basic manipulation while avoiding choking hazards, but that a bunch of 30 year-olds could use them for Battletech campaigns.

Our group lined up on the far side ready for battle. The conditions of the game were that the enemy was unaware of our position until they saw us or heard us. The rounds would not begin counting off for the secondary mission until the enemy was alerted to our presence.

It's like we're attacking Hoth, but sneakier

Game on.

One of my personal favorite quotes of Mike Tyson is, “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face”. Our last few missions have proven this to be true. Early in the game we construct elaborate plans, only to have everything go to hell once the enemy begins shooting back. 

The only way to make this man scarier in his game was have him belt out "In the Air Tonight"
This time we decided to keep it simple: run to the edge, and set up a sneak attack where enemy forces seem weakest. There was a huge assemblence of tanks on the left of the board, so we decided to swing right, cut behind the wall, and jump the two mechs just hanging out in cover.

We were able to cut across the giant open field rather easily, to which our GM exclaimed,"you guys are lucky there is a giant wall in the way so they don't see you coming". We did point out that it was not our fault that their city planner decided to place giant concrete walls between downtown and the suburbs and perhaps next time he would want to defend his town with a radar or watch tower. Of course this is a world where walking tanks that can fall down and trip are somehow superior to regular treaded tanks, so architecture and technology must be suffering from poor STEM education.

We snuck into the downtown section and prepared a surprise pincer attack. We knew from this point on that strategy would be thrown out and this was our last chance to setup before kicking this beehive, and given the mission objectives, about on half of us dying. We checked in to make sure we were in optimal positions, and everyone gave their nod of approval to tear open this can of kickass. Approval was given around the table and we prepared ourselves for hysteria and hi-jinks.

That's 360 collective tons of stealth and sneaking in a populated  financial district

Next round was a surprise round. Evidently these mechs had been summoned back to the core city of their forces to make a final stand (a la Alamo-style), but decide to just hang around in blind spots with new view of possible incoming forces. “Surely”, they must be discussing over the thousandth smoke-break that day, “these giant concrete walls that block everything except traffic of major highways will prevent all incursions to this fine city”. I understand that real-life combat is mostly boring, with occasional moments of pure hell, but if you are going to position guards, posting them on the outside of the door rather than the inside may prevent you from being horribly disfigured in a sneak attack.
So we horrible disfigured these mechs in a sneak attack.

Argyle Emblem are friendly players. Skulls are dead enemies.

They were surprised, but we were more so. It seems that we had tangled with these mechs before and severely damaged them in previous combat. With our jump-around-a-building-and-launch-every-rocket-we’ve-got technique, these guys were quickly evaporated.

At this point, the large armada of tanks spots the explosions of our missiles. The battle is on and everyone knows we are there. Time to play this carefully.

There seems to be enemy forces nearby, but we're not sure where.

Our GM had given us an additional advantage to this game. Our employers brought a land-mine artillery gun into this fight. Yes you read that correctly. An artillery gun that shoots landmines. Now that our enemy knew we were here, we could begin calling in artillery strikes to setup landmines in the next round. As long as the enemy was not nearby, they would be unaware that those spaces were mined. We immediately focus the artillery at the outside pathways in the city so we can funnel the enemy in the center. This would prove to be our smartest move throughout the game.
After clearing two enemies, we have taken half the city. How bad could the rest be?

What qualifies as not our smartest move, in fact failing completely to come in the running for smartest move, was the remainder of our battles. Enemy mechs would rush up in our faces in avenues and jumping over rooftops, while tanks spun around behind us and called in their own missile barrages. In a few short rounds, our Warhammer was severely damaged and overheating to near shutdown, our Clan mech had lost most of its front armor, and the Shadow Hawk had almost lost a leg. We had only killed 2 of 20 enemies, and we were close to losing this fight.

Fortunately for us, having spammed most of the city with landmines, most of the enemy forces were doing an amazing job of destroying themselves. Tanks would roll over a mine and just survive long enough to hit the next mine. Enemy mechs would jump on top of a roof, get hit with a barrage of our missiles, and then fall back behind cover to see a nice bouncing betty punch them in the nards. As a team of game designers, our overall strategies tend to be flawed but our ability to spawn camp and spam an exploit is unparalleled. 

The enemy experience was pretty much this: Jonah Hill meets Bouncing Betty
As the game progressed, we had more kills from landmines than any team member. Our Clan mech was barely holding on while our Warhammer somehow was able to avoid fire long enough to not go into critical meltdown.

We turned the game into Minesweeper. Notice the sea of deaths near the river of mines.
We lined up all dead enemy mechs and tanks to keep a kill toll. We needed 16 kills to win. We had done enough damage to kill of 14 and just needed 2 more confirmed kills. The time had long passed to earn our secondary mission, but we were very close to our primary and tertiary mission goals. A group of enemy tanks were surrounded by mines, but had chosen to dig in like ticks throughout the game. One tank was cornered and another surrounded in yet another ring of fire. We assumed if we spook one surrounded tanks and fire everything off at the final tank, we have this wrapped up in one more round.

What's an F5 tornado? The finger of God.

We carefully position ourselves in striking distance for the cornered tank, but leaving an open flank for the surrounded tank to take the bait. Correction. 3 of us carefully position ourselves. The tank DOES take the bait and destroys itself. The 4th one of us then takes the moment of celebration a little too far and gets cocky with the Clan mech. He then jumps directly in front of the tank rationalizing that if our rockets don't finish it off, his fists will.

What he failed to realize, but what the GM had been waiting for, was this was a special short-range missile tank, which unloads holy hell into the face of anyone dumb enough to get into its grill. It returned fire with 20 loads of missiles, which meant 20 chances of critical hits. Our grinning GM pulls out his pound of dice and dumps them all on the table. What followed was such a complex round of mathematics and probability, it took 3 of us to help calculate the critical hits and following damage. Both the tank and the Clan mech were vaporized.

So to sum up, we won the primary and tertiary goals and successfully ended the campaign. All of our pilots survived (barely) and can continue on to a new contract/campaign. Nearly all of our equipment is severely damaged beyond repair, but we live to fight and play another day.

Game Usability as a Kitchen

This is a pretty straightforward thought that seems to relay a complex design issue in games. Very often, game designers construct a beautifully elaborate experience, only to have it all go to hell once it gets in the hands of the audience.

Who is to blame for those problems? Is it the designer that is so stuck in his or her thoughts that only after daily practice in their own system do they understand it? Is the audience so attuned to gameplay of other games, you pretty much have to shrug your shoulders as a designer and go with the flow?

For the audience member, that may seem like it is the only solution to do what audiences feel is familiar, but this does come with a cost. If we were to make a FPS game, most likely we would make the control scheme and feel of the game very similar to Call of Duty. Why? Because chances are if you are near electricity, you have heard of Call of Duty. It was such a large hit that it becomes a simple way to educate the audience for any other FPS. Didn't play Call of Duty or didn't like Call of Duty? Well too bad, because if we only do what the audience is familiar, then expect a whole lot more of the Call of Duty experience. You will never get a Portal, Bioshock, or TF2. Just not in the cards. Game design then becomes a cliche machine.

So somewhere there needs to be a balance, or else game design is a dead art. And this is where the kitchen comes in.

Nearly everyone's kitchen is different. Kitchens come in various sizes, shapes, and colors. The components in them support what kinds of cuisines or normally cooked. Different people come from different backgrounds, and make different foods, so on and so on.

However, if we dropped an average person into just about any kitchen in the world, they would be able to identify fairly quickly that they are in a kitchen. It doesn't matter whether it is in Japan, Russia, or the U.S. It could be a commercial kitchen or part of a home in Nicaragua. We are able to identify very quickly key elements in the room that must have something to do with the cleaning and preparing of food. Usually some food storage and something that generates a lot of heat next to each other is a pretty good give away.

Now go into a kitchen that you've never been in before. Find a glass to pour yourself a beverage. Chances are you will go to the approximate location you are used to in your own kitchen. And chances are there will be anything but a glass or cup at that location. Somewhere in this space is the implement you need, but now you need to learn this space.

Game design does not have this luxury. If a player goes to the spot where they expect an ability (similar to looking to a glass in a different kitchen) they immediately go into frustration when it does not work as expected. This is not because of some stunted tolerance for change, as I'm sure many baby-boomers will point out. Instead it is a problem of context. We play games to enter a state of flow (read Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi) so that behaviors in game that in all other context should be work, instead is an enjoyable experience. Failing to enter flow brings the task at hand back into work, which is exactly the opposite reaction we desire from games.

For game designers, we need to design our kitchens so that most people can go into them and begin using them at a near-expert level immediately. They should not wonder where the cups are. Instead we should make cabinets with glass doors so you can see where the cups are. If the player is used to a gas range but we only have electric, provide some quick UI that helps translate what the difference means. Can't find a specific ingredient? Well that's okay too because we are going to give you big arrows that point to suggested alternatives in the specific moment you need them.