Category Archives: Blog

i wrote a book.

This blog’s been enjoying a steady influx of new readers since my recent GDC shenanigans. Thank you, and welcome! If you haven’t peered over to my sidebar, here’s the story so far: i wrote a book. i wrote a book on a subject i knew almost nothing about, and i did it never having written a book before. This is the story of how that happened.

i Killed a Guy

End of story.

Chalk outline

i swear that’s how it happened, officer.

New Header

Alright, no – but that would have been interesting.

i’d been aware of Unity 3D, a game engine, right from its early days. i was working at a kids’ media conglomerate and we were researching development tools for a new kids MMO. Unity was used to develop Cartoon Network’s FusionFall MMO. The drawback was that the software only ran on a Mac.

Running on a Mac

A year later i was at GDC, and Unity had announced a PC version. i saw them on the show floor, and tried comparing them with Torque 3D. At that time, reps for the two companies were doing a lot of mud-slinging, and a lot of FUD was bouncing around between the booths. So when i returned home, i asked a simple question on a LinkedIn forum: Unity or Torque? The answer was overwhelmingly in favour of Unity, to the tune of hundreds of responses. i knew i was on to something.

Get Me Summa Dat

i wanted to use Unity, but there were still a few barriers in the way. One of them was removed in short order when Unity moved to a free model. But there was still the problem that both 3D Studio Max and Maya, 3D software crucial to developing assets for Unity games, were $4000 a seat (after Autodesk had killed the $2k entry level version of each product). $Four large is a lot to swing on software for a small studio like mine.

Asshole

Why don’t i just pirate the software? Because unlike the guy at Autodesk who decided to cut the entry-level versions of both pieces of software and price them identically, i’m not an asshole.

Still, i could tell Unity was special, and i wanted to be involved. So i started tweeting about it. i kept a watch through Tweetdeck on the #Unity3D hash tag, and if any interesting info floated by, i retweeted it. i set up a new blogbook here called Unity Nuub, which would hold interesting articles and links related to the software. i downloaded Unity and goofed off with the software a little bit. i played Unity games. My interest was piqued, but my activity level was low.

Where There’s a Will…

Unity 3D Game Development Essentials

Around that time, a small publisher out of the UK called Packt was putting out the very first book on Unity 3D, by Will Goldstone. The publisher contacted me and asked if i wanted a free review copy in exchange for a review on my site. i said “sure”. How did they find me? Presumably through Twitter, i’d made a connection between myself and Unity, and i must have come up in a few Google searches.

A short time afterward, David Barnes (@fbindie) from Packt wrote me up saying they wanted to do a few more Unity books. What types of books did i think they should publish? i gave him my feedback. His next question, which left me a bit breathless, was: “Do you have any interest in writing any of them?”

Dusting off the Bucket List

i don’t know about you, but i’ve always wanted to be a published author. That was always just … something i had on my list, along with “fly a helicopter” and “marry rich”. Sadly, few of our childhood fantasies end up coming true … my wife is flat-ass broke, and we all know helicopters don’t exist. Once i was ten years into the games industry, i had resigned myself to the fact that i would probably never be a published author, so i put it out of my mind.

12 Inch Pianst

Abandoned, too, was my hope of having a twelve-inch pianist.

But here it was: an offer to write a book. A book on something i knew nothing about.

i was upfront with David. “i really have no idea how to use Unity.” He looked up my bona fides: trained in 3D Studio Max in college, worked 10 years as a game developer working with Flash, had a rockin’ blog packed with dick jokes and Actionscript tutorials (but mostly dick jokes.) He said a cookbook might be beyond me, but i could probably write a decent beginner book.

i told him i’d need some time to get up to speed on the software. i’d never made a game in Unity. i’d never done anything in Unity, for that matter. (But neither had many other people, really – the software was only 3 years old, and only 1 year out of the gate on the PC. Unity was news to a lot of people.)

David asked me point blank: “How long will it take you to learn Unity well enough to write a book about it?”

Gripping my desk chair and chewing my lips as i answered his email, i typed “Well, i suppose by the time i finish writing a book on it, i’ll know the software pretty well.”

And off we went.

Waterski

YeeeeHAAAAWWW!

The Luckiest Boy in the World

Are you hating me right now? Maybe you’ve read my other article, TENure, about how i was hired as a game developer despite not ever having made a game before? Maybe you want to wrap my face around your foot?

Who do you think should have written the second-ever published book on Unity? A Unity expert, i suppose! Well, can that Unity expert write? Does that Unity expert have the considerable time and energy for a book? And better yet, will that Unity expert remember what it was like to NOT be an expert? i don’t know about you, but i’ve spent a lot of money over the years on books by subject matter experts who move way, way too quickly. My mandate was to write a beginner book that beginners could truly get through. And not just Unity beginners: game development beginners. For example, there’s a heading in the book that says “What is code?”, and another section that briefs the reader on how 3D models are put together.

The Backlash

i caught a lot of flack from my colleagues while writing my book. They considered themselves Unity experts, i suppose, and why not? They had actually finished some games with it. i remember one particular tweet that went something like this:

Colleague: i’m going to do open heart surgery, but i’ve never trained to be a doctor.

Of course, his error was in comparing Unity to open heart surgery. Unity reminds me a lot of Flash … and not even Flash CSX, but Flash 4 back when i started in 2000. It strips out the whole mystery of writing code to draw stuff on the screen. If you’ve had any experience with XNA and wished you could actually see and manipulate your 3D models, you’ll find Unity a real treat.

Put another way: if coding to the metal is open heart surgery, working with Unity is cutting a heart out of construction paper using safety scissors.

Heart

Oh God … so much blood …

Gag Me

If writing a beginner-friendly book was my first mandate, my secondary goal was to write a technical manual that wasn’t so damned serious as everything else i’d read. You’re learning how to make video games. Why does everything have to read like a Terms of Service agreement?

i’m a fan of an O’Reilly series called HeadFirst, which is filled with cartoons and crossword puzzles and pictures – the idea being that if you are engaged on multiple levels in a variety of different ways, you’ll retain the material better than straight-up reading block after block of text. (You can probably tell by now that i’m a big fan of breaking up text with bullet lists and pictures)

Monorail cat

(why, look – there’s one now)

i’d love to work on a HeadFirst book one day. For now, as Packt is a small and relatively new publisher, i had to eschew the stock photography and crossword puzzles. But what i could do, and what David requested i do, was to pepper the text with humour. David wanted the same sense of humour i forcibly inject into this blog to bleed into the book.

Ouchy the Clown

You’ll laugh and you’ll LIKE it.

One of the book’s technical reviewers apparently didn’t get the memo. Throughout the drafts of the first two chapters, he filled the page up with comments like “please cut the humour – this is a technical manual, not the Muppet Show”, and “Well I never!” i think i even counted one or two “harrumphs” in there. It was like Packt had hired that wealthy dowager whose house the Three Stooges paint to review my book.

Wealthy dowager

Well, it’s a fine day to buy a computer book, isn’t it Mr. Picklefeather?

i re-connected with David. This reviewer seemed pretty peeved. Did i really have to go through the whole book and strip out all of the witty asides and punny paragraph headings? That would be like taking the red nose and seltzer bottle away from a clown. And then giving him colon cancer.

It got cleared up in short order. i’m not sure Packt even kept that reviewer on for the remainder of the project, and in the end, humour won out.

Currying Favour

Packt maintains a staff in India, who were responsible for copy-editing the book. You may have heard about the cultural growing pains of outsourcing work to foreign countries? While it was far from a nightmare, i did find myself going to bat more than once for various cultural references or turns of phrase that didn’t make sense to my editor from Mumbai – especially whenever i bent the rules of grammar, spelling, and punctuation for the sake of the yuks.

For example:

Worst. Game. Evar.

was corrected to read

Worst Game Ever

i had to do the legwork to explain that, well, there’s this character on the once-popular teevee program The Simpsons, you see, and he enjoys comic books …

Comic book guy

Jokes are so much funnier when you have to explain them.

Explaining why the word “evar” had to be spelled that way was even more of a challenge. Many of our email volleys ended with “just leave it cuz it’s funnier that way.” After she edited “cuz” to “because” for spite, i usually won out. ;)

Unity 3D Game Development By Example

The result is a book that i’m very, very proud of: one that makes a great introduction to Unity, 3D graphics, game programming and design, and in a way that encourages the reader to start small, finish something (even if it’s terrible!), and slowly build up those skills until he’s ready to release his opus. Unity 3D Game Development By Example is well worth buying. And the best news of all? i even managed to sneak in a few dick jokes.

Carpe Judex

My grandfather worked as a bailiff in Thunder Bay Ontario. Once day in the courtroom, there was a man brought in who had a dispute with his wife. In the middle of the hearing, he stood up and drew his gun. He shot and killed his wife, the judge, and his lawyer, before turning the gun on himself. The last two men standing were my grandfather and the court stenographer.

Chalk outline

See? It all comes full circle.

Thunder Bay needed a judge. My grandfather the bailiff, who to my knowledge had had no formal judiciary or legal training, was appointed to the position. He became a popular judge of young offenders, and there’s a building in Thunder Bay across from the University that’s named after him.

Many colleges and Universities now offer programs in video game development, as well as golf course management, creative writing, and even stand-up comedy (!). Don’t let the burden of a lack of training or experience get in the way of what you want to do. Get a job making video games even though you’ve never made one. Write a book, even though you’ve never written one and don’t know the subject matter. Perform open heart surgery even though you’re not a “doctor” (whatever that means). Recognize when the swirling twin tornadoes of chance and opportunity settle on your house, and get swept up. Otherwise, you’ll be lying on your death bed wondering what might have been.

And let’s hope to God you’re not in for heart disease.

Zynga Rich, You Jelly

i feel like i’m on an endless rant over this Zynga thing. It’s like a Grateful Dead tour … i just keep following the issue around in my VW minivan, and when i finally catch up with it, i dance around naked and bask in its glory. And then they name an ice cream flavour after it. Or … wait. What’s happening?

hippie

Haighters gonna Haight.

A few people took exception to my saying that the stink over Zynga and the horrible scads of filthy cash they’re earning, perhaps at the expense of crazy people, was due to jealousy. “No!” cried The People. “It’s not because i’m jealous that they have more money than the Federal Reserve fresh off a print run. It’s that Zynga (Playdom, Playfish) develop games that are shallow.”

Shallow Is as Shallow Does

Oho! i see. The problem is not that social game developers have enough cash to make papier mache pinatas for their kids’ birthday parties out of fifty dollar bills. It’s that their games don’t deliver a satisfying experience. It’s that they’re shallow.

Let me tell you about some shallow games, because i’ve spent my life playing them. And it’s been most of them.

i’ve played a game called Blue Dragon, a Japanese RPG where you keep pressing the “A” button for about 40 hours until you win. (Blue Dragon is also known under its import titles “Final Fantasy”, “Dragon Quest”, “Phantasy Star”, “The Secret of Evermore”, “Earthbound”, “Pokemon”, “Star Ocean”, and a few hundred other names which escape me.)

Blue Dragon

The game manual is one page, with a 72 pt font that says “PRESS A”.

I’ve played a game called Double Dragon, where you press the joystick button for about 2 hours until you win. (You may also know this game as “Final Fight”, “River City Ransom”, “BattleToads”, “The Simpsons Arcade”, “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles IV”, “Bad Dudes vs. Dragon Ninja”, and many more.)

Double Dragon

Double Dragon has kicking AND punching. Are we deep yet?

I’ve even played a game where you continually pressed a button to win, which i think was called Zaxxon / Xevious / Centipede / Bangai-O / Silpheed / Commando / Rambo: First Blood Part II / Contra.

Zaxxon

Does the isometric illusion of depth translate to gameplay depth?

And all in the name of playing a game with a little more depth, i even tried a game where you’re a guy, and you have to punch another guy using a combination of buttons until the other guy falls down (or you murder him). That one was called Mortal Kombat / Marvel vs. Capcom / Street Fighter / Killer Instinct / Clay Fighter / Virtua Fighter / Tekken / Pit-Fighter / Bloodstorm / Time Killers.

Mortal Kombat 2

Technically, i did have to reach pretty deep into that guy’s body to pull out his spine.

And if i ever really wanted to blow the barn doors off, i’d play this game where you walk around a 3D maze with a gun, and you SHOOT enemies with it, until all the enemies are gone. Sometimes, i’d play that game with other people in a “death match”. That’s a game mode where sometimes i would kill the other players, and sometimes the other players would kill me. Then we’d get a score sheet of who killed who. Then we’d play again. The next time, i would kill the other players a number of times, and they would kill me a number of times. The numbers sometimes changed, you see? That one was great. It was called Wolfenstein 3D / DOOM / QUAKE / Serious Sam / Duke Nukem / Call of Duty / Halo / Shooty McBang-Shoot.

Wolfenstein Hitler

Hitler in a mech suit. Here, we’ve attained THEMATIC depth, because Jews.

For 25 Points, Define “Shallow”

What’s shallow gameplay? Is it gameplay where you strategically place assets and efficiently use time and resources to maximize profits and dominate the game board, as you do in Farmville / Restaurant City / Cityville (or Dune II / Starcraft / Act Raiser / Populous / Age of Empires / Sim City)? Or is a “shallow” game one that you don’t enjoy?

Harvest Moon vs. Farmville

Warning: ONE of these games has shallow gameplay. But just one.

When we think “film”, we think of the best-in-class examples, like Citizen Kane, The Shawshank Redemption, Taxi Driver, and Lawrence of Arabia. We don’t necessarily call to mind Dude Where’s My Car, The Hottie and the Nottie, and Good Burger (although i’d really like to put in a good word for Good Burger, because it’s awesome. Check your Netflix listings.)

Good Burger

Well, he’s no Sidney Poitier, but … aw, who am i kidding? He IS Sidney Poitier.

Similarly, when we think of “games”, we think of Shadow of the Colossus, Braid, Super Mario Bros, Pac-Man, Metroid, The Legend of Zelda, and Tetris. We don’t necessarily call to mind Superman 64, Night Trap, E.T. the Extra Terrestrial, or the writing in Braid.

Braid Bad Writing

So … the girlfriend is a bomb? … i got nothing.

Starting with the Man in the Mirror

Can we be honest? Just as we’ve seen a lot of crappy movies over the years that weren’t really worth our time, we’ve played a LOT of horrendous games that we really should have passed on (except that we needed to beat the high score/get the last achievement/collect all the things). Sometimes, movies we dismiss as derivative or shallow get all kinds of money and attention (Steel Magnolias please?) Other times, we approve (Academy Award Winner Heath Ledger).

Mr. Freeze

Never go full supervillain.

So you don’t approve of Farmville? Why troll out your film critic’s turtleneck and goatee and try to pontificate over the lackluster aesthetics or shallow gameplay? Why isn’t it just good enough to say you don’t like it? “It’s not for me, but it’s okay for them to make money from it because other people seem to enjoy it.” There. Try saying that. It’s therapeutic.

Cozy Up with Grandpa Ryan

Look, i went through this. i’ve been in your shoes. Back in the mid-90′s, i lived and breathed graphic adventure games. They were witty, they were story-based, and they had GREAT characters and beautiful graphics. Then somewhere along the way, we went from LOOM to DOOM – from Zak McKracken to crackin’ skulls. Suddenly, the kinds of games i enjoyed stopped being made, because everyone was into running around and shooting things and not having to think. This brought an influx of the wrong kind of people into games: jocks. The very people who tormented me in elementary school for liking video games were now the industry’s target demographic, and would be for decades.

Biff Tannen

Know what? i f*ckin’ LOVE Turok.

Sure, i could rail against those games – talk about how they’re vapid and shallow and uninteresting. i could smoke my unfiltered cigarette through one of those long holders and sip red wine from a high-heeled shoe, and then splash it on some fashion model i keep around my studio apartment to brighten up that corner near the Bauhaus-designed furniture set. And i did, actually. i did just that.

Critic

Fable? More like FEEBLE. Muh-huh. Mmmyes.

But eventually, you just gotta say “that game is just not what i’m into.” Stop feeling threatened. Game genres fall in and out of favour. Are you worried that casual games become so popular that no one will make your empty-headed idiot shooters any more? It could happen. Then you’d become a niche player, like those of us who scour the bargain bins at Wal Mart looking for games that scored above a C- on JustAdventure.com. LOOK UPON ME: THIS IS YOUR FATE!

Bargain bin

Hmm … Scarlet Pimpernel: The Graphic Adventure Game. This looks promising.

The bottom line is that social game developers have made a LOT of money creating games that you don’t enjoy, and you feel threatened and resentful (and perhaps a little jealous) because the games that are getting so much attention aren’t the ones you enjoy playing. Do you really think that convincing those Farmville-addicted moms to play a metroidvania platformer is the answer? How will you choose to articulate your feelings? i like collecting little lost cows, and you like shooting space demons in the head. Be very careful who you’re calling shallow.

Have You Met My Friend Spike?

Almost in spite of my paltry efforts to drive traffic to ZombieGameWorld.com in the entertaining but fundamentally flawed Pimp My Portal series, i wrote a blog post that completely blew up last week. Apparently it’s less enjoyable to see me grovel for money than it is to see me lie my way into absconding with all the money, even when that money is made of plastic.

Post Mortem

The post hit the front pages of Reddit, Kotaku, Gamasutra, Hacker News, PCGamer, Ars Technica and Rock Paper Shotgun in the course of a week. Within a few hours of being on Reddit, my host took my site down in what they were calling a DOS attack. i assured them it wasn’t, and begged them to keep my site up. No dice. The traffic to my site “could compromise the experience of visitors to the other accounts that shared server space” with mine. The site’s finally back up on another server. Needless to say, i know a lot more about transferring files, database entries, and nameservers than i ever did.

Here’s what it takes to trigger a DOS warning with your standard $7/mo shared web hosting package:

Ryan Henson Creighton Untold Entertainment Traffic Spike

Shut it down! SHUT IT DOWN!!

Yeah. Thirty thousand people tried to hit the site before the host pulled the plug. (Sorry if i’m shattering the illusion here, but no – the Untold Entertainment blog does not usually pull in 30k visitors on a regular basis). i love how the spike completely flattens the regular traffic graph. (Side note: this graph also looks remarkably like a profile view of me waking up in the morning)

Someone posted a mirror site that pulled in maybe another 10k people, and i re-posted the article on Gamasutra, which got featured in the blog sidebar. So all in all, over fifty thousand people read (or read about) the article. How has this affected sales of my similarly entertaining and informative book, Unity 3D Game Development by Example, you ask? Purchase a copy and i’ll be sure to let you know.

The Most Expensive T-Shirt I’ve Ever Owned

Fame like this is definitely short-lived, so i decided to milk the last ounce of notoriety from it that i could at the IGDA Toronto Chapter meeting last night:

Ryan Henson Creighton Untold Entertainment I Have All the Coins T-Shirt

It’s true.

This is the best and most shameless stab at fame whoring that i could come up with. Well … this, and my upcoming appearance on Get Me Out of Here – I’m a Celebrity. Tune in next Tuesday at 8/7 central.

The Flip Side of the Coin

i feel like i set off a firecracker in the Internet boys’ bathroom with my story of how gosh-darned clever i was, lying and cheating my way to GDC rant victory. i posted the article Saturday night, and by early Sunday morning, i’d been featured on the front pages of Reddit, Hacker News, PCGamer, and Kotaku. Two days later, the story was on Gamasutra and Ars Technica.

WYSI(N)WYG

There’s a flip side to everything you see at events like GDC. This year marked my sixth trip to the hallowed halls of gamedom. Over the years, i’ve seen mobile game development crawl up from the abyss to a privileged position as the only thing anyone ever talked about at the conference. i’ve witnessed the rapid rise and fall of kids’ virtual worlds, the decline of the casual downloadable market, the explosion of digital distribution, and the Godzilla-like devastation wrought by the likes of Zynga.

The people who take the mic at GDC are almost always the people with success stories to share. These are the people who draw the crowds and the numbers. But the success they tout in their sessions may not be all it’s cut out to be, and it may not even last until the following year’s conference.

Pair o’ Dice Lost

For example, one year i heard a guy speak about all the money he’d made on his game. i was impressed, and more than a little jealous. i thought “man, what i wouldn’t give to have all that money.” And then i envisioned all the things i’d do with it: giant robot races, playroom made of Nerf, Rolls Royce that plays “Dixie” when you honk the horn … and despite myself, before i even realized what was happening, i started vigorously rubbing my thighs. By the time i snapped out of it, i was being asked to leave the conference hall.

The next year, i learned that the very same guy who’d hit it so big with his game was on the financial ropes, and that his house was in foreclosure.

Home foreclosure

Ehm … perhaps we should have sold more virtual hats?

One year at the seldom-publicized conference portion of E3, i heard MYST designer Rand Miller talk about his plans for the upcoming MYST multiplayer game. The game launch was a famously massive flop.

i try to catch Raph Koster every time he speaks at GDC. Despite his brilliance, he’s no stranger to failure (Star Wars Galaxies, anyone?). Most recently, i saw him introduce his new venture, Areae/Metaplace. One (maybe two?) year(s) later, Metaplace had completely tanked, and Raph was on to something new.

Raph Koster

Raph inappropriately mimes “tappin’ dat ass” during a stuffy corporate event.

Two Plastic Pennies to Rub Together

So the other side of me, the guy holding all the coins (albeit plastic ones), is that i don’t have many coins to hold, plastic or otherwise. i’ve been running my independent game studio, Untold Entertainment, for over three years, and have struggled to release a single game through all of the service work i’ve been trying (and often failing) to land.

Sad violin

So it was in that spirit that while i was at GDC this year, and i saw a nickel on the ground in front of me, i picked it up. It was just underneath the chair in the next row up , where i sat waiting for a session to begin. i glanced around furtively to see if anyone had dropped it, or had even noticed it, and then scooped it up inconspicuously and slid it into my pocket.

Secret

i did this in the midst of GDC, a conference for which the alumni pass set me back $1300. i was surrounded by very wealthy people (or so they seemed), some of the biggest movers and shakers in the game industry.

Squirrel Fishing

The next night, i went to a party hosted by Canada, my home and native land. While strolling around looking for someone new to meet who could help me figure out where i was going wrong in my bidness, i noticed a quarter on the ground. i figured “why stop now”, and stooped to pick it up. As i did, i kind of worried that the people sitting in a nearby restaurant booth had planted it there to see what kind of desperate sad-sack stopped to grab it. i half-expected the coin to be jerked out from between my fingers, tied to an invisible piece of thread, as my imagined tormenters laughed and pointed at me. And then the biggest one, the guy they called “Titan”, would dump his milkshake over my head and put his arm around Jenny Jenkins, who was wearing his high school sweater.

Charles Atlas

But nothing like that happened. i just grabbed the quarter, and into my pocket it went.

The Value of Bending Over

The tidbit of info that runs through my mind whenever i stoop to grab a penny or better comes from The Straight Dope, a weekly collection of ponderables by Cecil Adams featured in various North American newspapers. In his article Is it Worth it to Pick Up a Penny?, Cecil writes:

The Scientific Research Team here at Straight Dope HQ has proven that a proficient penny-picker upper can probably pick up a particular penny in five seconds. On an hourly basis this works out to $7.20 per hour. As of 9/1/97, minimum wage will be a mere $5.15 an hour.

The minimum wage in Ontario is now $10.25, but i think the point is still reasonable. It can’t hurt to grab an errant coin … unless it hurts your ego.

Third Time’s a Charmin

The day after i snatched the quarter at the party, my “teeth were floating”, so i walked into one of the GDC conference restrooms to “drain the tank” by “compressing my bladder and excreting urine from my urethra” (so to speak). There, on the top of the urinal, was a small, tidy stack of coins: a few pennies, and maybe a nickel and a dime. i thought fate was playing a cruel trick on me. i mean, i don’t believe in punitive Greek-style gods who watch mess with us for their own amusement, but come ON. What was this all about?

Gods

“Queen’s Kamikazes to Pearl Harbor three.” “You sank my battleship!”

As a stream of hot me flowed into the bowl, i stared at the little stack of coins. How … i mean, how low would i have to be to pick up those coins? They were probably dirty. Did the guy who left them there put them on the urinal before or after handling the goods? And … well, what did it matter, really? Money is filthy. We all know that. What harm … ?

But NO. No, no, no. Maybe i picked up a couple of lousy coins around the conference. Fine. But i was NOT going to snatch toilet money. i mean, it was toilet money. There’s a difference between picking up money that someone drops on the floor of a convention centre or restaurant, and taking money that some dude piled on top of a john because …

… because why, exactly? Why exactly was the money on the urinal, anyway? Did the last guy put it there because he was worried it would fall out when he dropped trou? Or did it FALL IN the urinal, and he fished it out, and thought it would be weird to throw money in the garbage so he just LEFT IT THERE?

Jack

Can’t decide … can’t decide BRAIN ANEURYSM!!

i stared at that little stack of change long and hard, friends. And then, as the last lingering drops splashed on the ceramic basin below, i knew i had a decision to make.

What i thought to myself was this: “when was the last time someone paid me seventeen cents for taking a pee?”

Then i grabbed the change from the top of the urinal and put it in my pocket.

i Don’t Actually Have All the Coins

What you see is not what you get. i appeared to many of the conference delegates, and to the people who read the article afterward, as a guy who really had it together, you know? A Robin Hood figure – a folk hero who had all the coins … when in fact, i have so few coins that i’m not above grabbing them off the ever-loving toilet.

This makes sense, though. It’s consistent with my personality. What is the Pimp My Portal series, if not a sad attempt to scrounge together $33 in pocket change every month to cover website hosting?

Or maybe it was the madness of GDC that made me do it? When it comes down to it, maybe i was simply attending a conference about video games, collecting coins?

Do Social Games Exploit the Mentally Ill?

From reading my surprise guest rant at GDC this year, you might think i’m a card-carrying member of the Zynga Fan Club (a club which forces you to re-confirm membership every fifteen minutes, and which sells you an auto-re-confirmation cantelope for $2).

i think a lot of what motivates people to gripe about Zynga stems from either jealousy, or the fear by core gamers that Zynga will become so popular that their precious triple-A first-person-head-exploder games will fade from existence and they’ll be forced to decorate bunnies and rescue little lost restaurants for the rest of their lives.


Don’t cry, little boys: these games will be around for a long time to come.

i think the money Zynga makes is well deserved, and that players should be able to decide for themselves when a game becomes too rote or too addictive without it offering them enough value for their time or dollar. But i don’t give Zynga or its competitors a license to exploit. There’s one area in which i feel that social game developers need to act far more ethically, and if they fail to do so, i may even advocate the same type of government regulation that limits the use of tobacco, alcohol, drugs, gambling, and any other addictive substance or activity.

A Moment with Mitchell

A few weeks back, i was at a very small gathering of students at the Herve Velasquez School for the Digitally Inclined, where i used to teach until they fired my ass. The game development students run a club, which offers everything from Magic: the Gathering tournaments to 3D speed modeling competitions (in which the students use all three dees).

Magic: the Gathering

Ah, youth.

This particular week, the students had invited Mitchell Smallman to speak. Mitchell is a writer for a social game on Facebook that’s raking in money left right and centre, as Facebook games are wont to do. Throughout his talk, Mitchell tried to dislodge the students from their biases against social games, and making games (of any stripe) with profit as the main intent, his first bullet point being “get over yourself.”

This was all fine and dandy. But toward the end of Mitchell’s rant, he dropped a megaton bomb: Mitchell Smallman said, in a clear but apologetic voice, “the problem with social games is that they exploit the mentally ill.”

Going Off the Whales on a Crazy Train

To explain himself, Mitchell began describing his game’s “whales”. This is a term borrowed, uncoincidentally, from the gambling industry, which decsribes enormously rich people who jet in to Vegas, drop a disgusting amount of cash at the tables, and jet back out again having had, one supposes, tons of fun.

Las Vegas

What you happen to spend in Vegas, stays in Vegas.

Mitchell talked about some particular whales in his social game: two Bay Street (Wall Street) investment bankers who were competing to knock each other off the high scores list, and in doing so, dropped over ten grand apiece. We had a good, if nervous, laugh over this.

Piano Movers

Last time i dropped a grand, i was a piano mover and i … lame joke. Abort.

But Mitchell’s tone turned serious when he confided in the group that a good number of the whales he sees are actually people who spend an alarming amount of time in the game, and who spend an enormous amount of money not necessarily because they’re having fun, but because they feel they have to. These are the first people to angrily harass the live team when the game is down, or when something doesn’t work as they expected it to.

And simply from the timbre of their forum banter, Mitchell said he could tell these folks weren’t of sound mind.

Michael Jackson post

Um … lame comment? …. abort?

At this point, of course, you can interject that Mitchell Smallman is not a licensed psychologist. But come on, friends. We regular people can smell crazy on our own just fine. If we couldn’t, we’d all be wearing Snuggies out on the street like they’re haute couture.

Snuggies

Well Katie, it’s Fashion Week here in New York, and …

Let’s Agree to Agree

With Mitchell’s confession in the back of my brain, i attended a GDC “debate” on the validity of social games, called “A Debate: Are Social Games Legitimate?”. i put “debate” in dick quotes because, like many of the panels in the conference’s social games discipline, obvious croneyism kept the session from being truly worthile. The panelists were three developers who made social games, and one academic who had made a satirical social game but was nonetheless doing well by it.

So that’s three “fer”, and one sardonically “agin”. That’s supposed to be an argument? That’s like asking four members of the Wu-Tang Clan to debate the merits of “peein’ on bitches.”

Ol' Dirty Bastard

The Chair recognizes the Right Honorable Ol’ Dirty Bastard.

The debate unfolded with all the ferocity of a sorority slumber party pillow fight, with the only true opposition coming from Ian Bogost, who gently massaged the other panelists with soft suggestions of how they may be gently bruising the industry, if you please.

Daniel James, CEO of Three Rings (Puzzle Pirates), who i figured was supposed to be quasi-oppositional (merely because his game wasn’t on Facebook?), clamped up pretty early in the debate when he very visibly realized that any criticism leveled at the Facebook developers could easily be aimed squarely at him, and at point blank range to boot. (Daniel said he would be “personally distressed” if his game relied too heavily on gambling tricks, and despite being a fan, i wondered what planet he was on? Puzzle Pirates hosts regular POKER MATCHES, ffs)

Puzzle Pirates

Thank God our game doesn’t rely on GAMBLING HOOKS …

By the time the back-patting was over, i was still hoping to see a little fur fly. i took to the mic during the question period (as i do), and laid the groundwork with Mitchell’s initial whale stories. Then i asked the panelists point blank: do social games exploit the mentally ill?

Getting the Heck Out of Dodge

Nabeel Hyatt from Zynga performed a classic dodge: “What do you mean by ‘mentally ill’?”

Ah. Would this be an argument over semantics?

“You know – mentally ill,” i said. “Like manic-depressive, schizophrenic, or obsessive-compulsive. That type of thing.”

Nabeel gave it another shot.

“I … don’t understand the question?”

i reiterated: were social games primed to exploit, or even promote, players’ mental illness to encourage them to play more often and to spend more money than they really should?

What followed was a bent-over-backwards dodge of Matrix-esque proportions. The panelists, primarily Nabeel, began by redefining mental illness as “fandom”. “i used to collect a ton of comic books when i was a kid,” said Nabeel, “was i mentally ill?” To my dismay Ian Bogost, in what i saw as an abuse of his intellect (and sole devil’s advocate status), came to Nabeel’s aid, asking (with patronizing pedagogy) whether enthusiasm for popular culture didn’t border on madness?

Heavily Medicated Beatlemania

My time at the mic was up, but i thought No, you creeps – i’m not talking about Bieber fever here … i’m talking about the kind of people you watch every week on Hoarders. Actual, real people who can’t, like the rest of us, reason their way out of playing an addictive social game because it’s eating up too much time, money, and sanity.

Straightjacket

Please – just one more bushel of Smurfberries!!!

Of course, no social game developer in his right mind would suggest that these types of people need to be limited in their play time and spending. These are their whales, after all. These are the people pushing up their ARPU and scoring them the cash. If anything, social game developers would do well by attracting (or even CREATING) more mentally ill players, because only someone out of their mind would spend real money on things that don’t really exist (as the panel’s moderator Margaret Robertson suggested, jokingly).

Your Stand on Instanity

So, the question: should companies like Zynga and Playdom be regulated by the government to limit time and money spent when players cross a certain activity threshhold? Or should the governemt stay out of it, and should these companies voluntarily develop these limitations borne naturally of their own corporate ethical policy? And if these companies continue to be left to their own devices, will these innate ethical practices ever emerge?

We regulate and legislate smoking, drinking, drugs, and gambling, but we don’t throw shopaholics in prison. Aren’t these people just online shopaholics?

COUNTERPOINT! Isn’t the key difference that we’re not tracking the every move of brick-and-mortar shopaholics, but we ARE tracking every move of our online players? Since we already know everything they’re doing, isn’t it incumbent upon us to act to prevent them from harming themselves?

REBUTTAL! Die in a fire, Ian Bogost! (panelist Curt Bererton tears his shirt open and leaps across the table, his splayed fingers aimed at Bogost’s tender face)

Moderator: FINISH HIM!

Kirk vs. Spock

Erm … sorry about that. i got carried away. Knowing that social games aren’t leaving any time soon, let me know if you think social game developers should be externally limited, whether they should be self-limiting, or whether they should be free to gouge as much time and money from as many people as they like, crazy or sane, as our God-given free market allows. And also, please let me know who you think would win in a bare-chested pit fight between Ian Bogost and Curt Bererton. i’m writing the Bogost/Bererton slash fiction as we speak.

UPDATE!

Mitchell Smallman has responded with a wonderfully thoughtful take on whales and the damage they do to player communities, and the responsibility of designers to create games that strive for more than vapid box-ticking as a mechanic.