Tag Archives: GDC

This Preposterously Large Novelty Button is the Best Promotional Purchase i’ve Ever Made

Guys: forget one-pagers and business cards and booth space and being friendly on Twitter. The greatest money i’ve ever spent trying to promote a game at a conference like GDC this week is this absurdly gigantic Ask Me About Spellirium button, which i have to securely pin through ALL of my shirts, or else it will drag on the floor and peel me out of my clothes:

It also affects the tides.

Everyone here at GDC is asking me about Spellirium because of this astonishingly huge button. Even if they don’t CARE about the game, and they just want to make FUN of my inappropriately grandiose button, their sarcastic japes actually open the door for me to tell them about Spellirium. Damn their mockery – my message still gets heard.

My audaciously enormous button serves an important secondary function: it is a reference to a character in The Secret of Monkey Island who wears a button that says “Ask me about LOOM”.

(i always thought that guy looked a lot like Ron Howard’s brother)

Spellirium is unabashedly inspired by LOOM, and anyone who gets the reference and points it out to me has just identified himself as someone familiar with point n’ click graphic adventure games. That person is now a prequalified lead, with the upsettingly gigantic button having done all of the work for me.

It is so choice. If you have the means, I highly recommend picking one up.

Help Put Spellirium on Steam!

Listen up!

We’re making a really cool graphic adventure / word puzzle mash-up called Spellirium. It totally kicks ass, and it has an amazing post-apocalyptic “trashpunk” aesthetic that looks like this:

Spellirium New Mound Saloon

Do you want to play this game? Do you want to play this game on Steam?

Untold Entertainment has its first-ever meeting with Steam two weeks from now at GDC (the Game Developers’ conference) and to be honest, we don’t want to blow it. We’re nervous that Steam is going to take one look at our 31 Facebook Likes and 18 Twitter followers and think “hmm … this game that looks like it’s made from garbage is also going to sell like garbage.”

i’d love to get these follower numbers up to a level where the nice folks at Steam are gonna say “Hey! People are actually interested in this game! We’d like to distribute it on our platform.”

Are you interested in Spellirium? Do you realize it’s going to be the greatest graphic adventure/word puzzle hybrid game you’ve ever played? Please help us out:

  1. Like Spellirium on Facebook!
  2. Follow Spellirium on Twitter!

In return, we’ll roll out a whole development plan to keep you updated on how we’re doing, including special glimpses at character artwork, concepts, background designs, scripts, storyboards, and secrets about Spellirium.

If you want to know more about the game, ask me about it! i’ll answer all of your questions in the comments section, and have posted more detail below. Thanks SO MUCH for your support! We’re working very, very hard to make Spellirium a great game that you’ll enjoy.

– Ryan Henson Creighton
President and Founder of Untold Entertainment Inc.
(and the guy who’s going to delete this post before Steam sees it ;)

More About Spellirium – Read Ahead Only if You Care!

Q: How do the graphic adventure and word puzzle bits interact?

A: Instead of throwing a lot of item-based puzzles at you, Spellirium gives you a Boggle-like grid of letters on the right side of the screen. On the left, you see an enemy or a challenge that you have to solve by spelling words. Every challenge has a different solution.

Sometimes, you might have to make words with certain coloured tiles (GREEN words defeat the green creature). Or in certain directions (spell a word from left to right to move a character from left to right in a maze). Or maybe the words themselves matter (spell FIRE, FLAMES or INFERNO to torch something). Sometimes, you’re not allowed to move the tiles around, and you have to make words based on what the grid gives you. Other times, you may have to make words with double letters (to defeat twin creatures), or spell palindromes (to defeat a two-headed foe), or find rhyming words (to crack the code on riddle etched in a mysterious stone).

Spellirium New Mound Saloon

In this challenge, each brick in the wall corresponds to a letter tile in the grid. Spelling a five-letter word at the top-left eliminates the five top-left bricks in the matching area of the wall. The goal is to knock out all of the bricks to escape the area.

You’ll walk around beautifully-drawn scenes, just like in a graphic adventure game. The game has a great story. You talk to characters, pick up items, and travel around the map … but every significant interaction boils down to a neat puzzle-within-a-puzzle where you spell words to succeed.

Q:So it’s educational, right? It’s a game for kids?

A:Well, kids don’t really enjoy word games very much. And there’s a difference between a game that’s educational because it teaches you something, and a game like Spellirium that requires you to be educated to really enjoy it. If you liked the idea of a mash-up game like Puzzle Quest, but grew tired after your 8000th game of match-3, you’ll like the variety that Spellirium offers. It’s a great game for old-school graphic adventure fans, and for people who enjoy games like Scrabble, Boggle, Words with Friends, Scramble, Text Twist, Wurdle, Spelltower, Scrabulous, Bookworm Adventure, and Puzzlejuice. If you like doing the newspaper crossword, or if you like games that demand more from your brain than from your muscles, you’ll rather enjoy Spellirium.

Sleazin' it up!

If you have a pulse and a pocketbook, you’ll enjoy Spellirium.

Q:You mentioned a great story? i’ve heard that claim before.

A:So have we! In fact, we’re so disillusioned by lacklustre game stories that we set out to write one that doesn’t suck. Here it is:

Spellirium takes place in the future, after a mysterious apocalyptic event that left the world buried. The survivors can have “modern” technology, as long as they can dig it up … but with no gas, electricity, or enriched uranium, they can’t do much with what they find. So they build houses with it. They use cars as walls, and satellite dishes as spittoons. This gives the game its neat-o “trashpunk” aesthetic, and it’s why parts of the world look like they’re medieval. The survivors have been busted back to the Dark Ages.

Spellirium: The Safestate Ruins

“Ruins” in Spellirium are actually buried skyscrapers.

Their biggest problem is that all forms of reading and writing are outlawed. If you dig something up with writing on it, you have to scrape/scratch/burn the letters off, or your findage will be confiscated and you’ll be put to death. You can’t write on anything, or even invent a new form of writing. You can’t even communicate with pictograms, because that’s a form of writing. So the people are technologically poor, and bound to stay that way.

You play a young tailor named Todd who’s holed up in a cloistered community with four men who call themselves the “Runekeepers” – a secret society that curates an underground library filled with junk with writing on it. When the Runekeepers leave on a mysterious mission and one of them turns up dead, Todd discovers a mysterious device that affects reality when he uses it to spell words. Todd teams up with an oddball clan of adventurers including a big blue monster, a hard-edged hunter, and a foppish bard. Together, they set out to find the missing Runekeepers and to save them from danger.

Q: Sounds pretty serious?

A: Humour is a hallmark of everything we do at Untold Entertainment. Spellirium is wry and witty. Just as the Monkey Island series is very dark thematically and graphically but is betrayed by a great sense of humour, Spellirium is similarly a dark fantasy game infused with sly, winking writing.

Q: This is your big chance. Anything else i should know about?
A: Spellirium is a feature-rich game with a lot of wild ideas. Here’s a feature list of stuff we haven’t talked much about (but we will on the Facebook/Twitter accounts that you’re about to click on! :)

  • build, collect and track over fifty thousand words in an unlockable Dictionary
  • gather non-biodegradable landfill items and craft them into power-ups
  • buy new items using collected words as your currency
  • battle a variety of creatures, and store their info in your Bestiary
  • scavenge different items from creatures by bribing, scaring, or defeating them
  • learn special spells like ZAP and DELUGE to electrify or drown your enemies
  • share your best words on Twitter, and add your Twitter pals’ words to your Dictionary
  • discover the shocking secret that holds the Land in thrall

Spellirium: Bestiary Concept

An early Bestiary concept.

Q: Where’s the trailer?

A: We’re building out the story as we go – “shooting in sequence”, as the film term goes. That means we don’t have enough footage to make it appear as though the game takes place beyond the same three locations! We’re also trying to get the rights to a certain song to use in the trailer.

In the meantime, we have a few short, soundless video clips. This is probably the most informative one:

Thanks SO MUCH for all your support! We’re looking forward to showing you tons of great new stuff about Spellirium, and we hope you like us enough to make an impression on the folks at Steam!

  1. Like Spellirium on Facebook!
  2. Follow Spellirium on Twitter!


Untold Entertainment Goes Forth

Untold Entertainment Goes Forth

When Untold Entertainment Inc. turned three last year, we were reeling from the fallout of the global economic collapse. It’s been a slow, difficult recovery, and we still have a lot of work left to do, but i’m happy to say we’ve nosed out of the tailspin. This was a landmark year for Untold; we are poised to have an absolutely incredible fifth year going forward. If last year was our Empire, this year is our Jedi. Bring on the Ewoks, baby.


Yub nub, motherf*cker.

Here’s a look at the Year That Was.



Last fiscal ended on a dark note. We were struggling through Spellirium, our post-apocalyptic puzzle adventure game, as various production problems saw the budget sapped with very little to show for our efforts. The year ahead had us planning to complete service projects in the hope that we’d bank enough margin to continue working on the game.



My book was published! Unity 3D Game Development by Example: A Beginner’s Guide is a great introduction to game development, computer programming, and Unity 3D itself, which is a super-powerful game engine for creating on a wide variety of platforms. Thanks to you all for buying a copy, or for recommending the book to your friends.

Unity 3D Game Development By Example


We launched Jinx 3: Escape from Area Fitty-Two on YTV.com. Jinx 3 was the first game to use UGAGS, the Untold Graphic Adventure Game System. It supported multiple playable characters, an inventory system, a subtitle system, game variable control, and a “puppet” guidance system, which enables the developer to write commands to build in-game cutscenes. Jinx 3 was the first UGAGS game we developed, but the second one to launch, after Heads.

Jinx 3: Escape from Area Fitty-Two

i spoke about UGAGS at Gamercamp Level 2.0, a Toronto convention celebrating the joy of video games.

October saw the publication of a now-infamous article about the Vortex Game Development Competition, where the previous year’s winners were revealed to have never worked on the winning game.

i experimented with a feature called Linkbait Tuesdays, where i used the Linkbait Generator to spit out randomized titles for blog posts. It wasn’t much appreciated by my readership, and didn’t appreciably increase blog traffic, so i killed the feature.

On Hallowe’en, we launched our second free games portal called ZombieGameWorld.com. If you know the song about the old woman who swallowed the fly, you’ll understand our challenge with these portals. We built WordGameWorld.com in order to attract a word game-playing audience, so that we could control the site’s ad inventory and find an audience for Spellirium. When the site suffered from flagging traffic, i decided to build a network of game portals; ZombieGameWorld.com was ostensibly created to help drive traffic to WordGameWorld.com, which should drive traffic to Spellirium.

Old lady who swallowed a fly

She swallowed the spider to catch the fly. i don’t know why she swallowed the fly. i guess she’ll die?

To round out the fall, i grew a beard to win hockey tickets, despite not enjoying hockey. i spoke at an interactiveontario luncheon. And i wrote an article for Mochiland.com on the disgraceful refusal by contracting companies to credit their Flash game developers.

Ryan Henson Creighton's epic moustache

Why wouldn’t you want your game to be associated with this guy?


As the cold weather set in, i took a position at a private college teaching Unity 3D game development. i had hoped for a better experience than i had at HervĂ© Velasquez School for the Digitally Inclined, but no such luck: halfway through the course, which was dubbed Programming II (the students had supposedly been taught Flash/Actionscript for four months prior to my arrival), i had to dial everything back and re-teach programming basics to them. And by basics, i mean stuff like “What does the ‘=’ symbol do?” and “What is a variable?”


What … is your NAME?

The class was only eight students, but i had no fewer than two of those students’ parents call or email me to ask why little Billy was getting low grades on tests. YaRly.

In this, i further proved the thesis in my contentious What’s Wrong with Ontario Colleges articles (Part 1 and Part 2). Helicopter parenting and failure aversion have created a generation of non-functional kids, which i later dubbed The Most Useless Generation. My diagnosis is that many college undergrads have escaped high school without ever understanding How to Be a Student (an article i wrote while teaching last winter, which i’ve only just posted now that i’ve put some distance between myself and the situation).

In the interest of helping young people be more successful, i offered My Prescription for (More) Successful Students, which my students all ignored, and i wrote a serious of articles called Understanding Programming to explain programming basics, which my students also ignored. Oh well. As the saying goes, you can lead a horse to water, but sometimes you just have a retarded horse.

retarded horse



In 2011, we launched an exciting blog series called Pimp My Portal, detailing our struggles to drive traffic to ZombieGameWorld.com and WordGameWorld.com. The hook here was The World’s Most Meager Marketing Budget, a pot of just $100 that i spent on Fiverr.com to buy testimonial videos to promote the site, the rationale being that search loves video. The Old Lady who Swallowed the Fly reared her ugly head again, as i found that i had no audience to watch the videos to go to the portal to go to the OTHER portal to find out about Spellirium. The Pimp My Portal series is ongoing.

Around this time, we were commissioned by The Centre for Skills Development and Training to produce a series of games to help teach workplace skills to 15-30-year-olds. The resulting game, Summer in Smallywood, enabled us to make a number of improvements to UGAGS, including auto-save, debug tools, navigation meshes, saved game profiles, and threaded conversations. We’re looking forward to working further with The Centre in the coming year to expand our educational gaming experience.

Summer in Smallywood by Untold Entertainment

In March, i admit i was feeling a little bit desperate and squirrely. Work was trickling into the shop in fits and starts, and i was really wondering whether renewing our lease would be wise. Wild-eyed and hungry at GDC, i was overcome with the need to let the world know i am here, like the tiny Whos living on a speck on a clover stalk, who ultimately issue a resounding YOPP! to show the jungle animals that they exist (and to keep from getting boiled in beezlenut oil).


A game dev’s a game dev, no matter how small.

To that end, i pulled some shenanigans at the conference, which came to be known as the famous GDC Coin Stunt. The resulting press on most major online games sites greased the wheels for what was to be our greatest victory yet.

i have all the coins shirt

Over the years, we’ve found it so difficult to drive enough steady Flash game development work that we haven’t been able to bank enough time or enough money to do our own thing. To date, the only chance we seem to get is TOJam, an annual weekend-long Toronto game jam, during which we always produce a complete and original game. Indeed, nearly every title in the Original Games section of our portfolio is a TOJam game, completed in one weekend by me alone.

This year, we used UGAGS to create Sissy’s Magical Ponycorn Adventure. i worked on the game with my 5-year-old daughter Cassandra. It was no accident that i was wearing my “I have all the coins” T-Shirt in the TOJam group photo this year. After the game went live, it went viral, initially being featured on many of the same sites that covered the coin stunt. In the few months since its launch, the ponycorns game has gone on to become an international sensation (i just granted an interview to a Japanese newspaper this week!).

Cassie and Daddy

[photo by Brendan Lynch]

With the ponycorns game, we took a very important step to improving our viability as a dev studio by launching the game on the Apple iPad and the BlackBerry Playbook. On the third day of its launch week, Sissy’s Magical Ponycorn Adventure was featured by Apple in its New & Noteworthy section.

Ponycorns also drove us to develop our first alternate revenue stream based on our original IP. We launched the Untold Booty merchandise store with a number of different ponycorns-based SKUs, and have been very happy with the results.

Throughout the year, i remained active with the IGDA Toronto Chapter, organizing some well-received events including the speed dating-style Game.Set.Match, the Open Mic Night rant session, Straight Outta TOJam: Pint-sized Postmortems, and the Fund in the Sun workshop.

IGDA Toronto Chapter posters

Through the spring, we developed a great puzzle/platformer game called Spladder, which currently runs on a number of kids’ broadcaster sites – YTV.com. TVO.org and CBBC.co.uk among them.

We launched a new games portal called TowerDefenseGameWorld.com and filled it with free tower defense games, because it’s difficult to prove a theory about a network of games portals lending each other traffic if you only have two portals. We also gave a major upgrade to ZombieGameWorld.com by expanding it to feature zombie games and goodies on other platforms.

i know an old lady who swallowed a horse. She’s dead, of course.

Summer. Future.

We’ve come full circle. Spellirium remains unfinished, but we’re finally spending time on it again. We poked Kahoots with a stick to see if it was still twitching. Thankfully, it is! We’ve made some creative changes to it to spare a fellow indie game dev company some unpleasant legal strife; look forward to a Kahoots-related announcement in the coming months.

i’m writing the 3.x update to my Unity 3D book, which will be ready shortly (send me an email and i’ll add you to our notification list when the update is released).

Going forward, our plan is to leverage the success of the ponycorns game to make major in-roads into game development and education for kids (see our article on CBC.ca). i’m preparing a pilot project with Cassie’s elementary school this fall. We’re preparing the unstoppable UGAGS engine for a business-to-business, and then consumer, release – expect it to have a kid-friendly interface. We’re polling people for their interest in an iPhone/iPod version of the game (send us an email!). i’ll be delivering my conference session Ponycorns: Lightning in a Jar at the Screens festival this fall, and at other conventions throughout the year. Ponycorns is being translated into Japanese in anticipation of the Sense of Wonder Night at the Tokyo Games Show.

Untold Entertainment’s fifth year will be filled with low-life panda bears, daily word puzzles, gamesByKids, and more great articles about game development and education, peppered with rude jokes and stolen LOLcat pictures. Thanks so much for your support, everyone! i’m really looking forward to writing an amazing recap next year.

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.


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.


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?


“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?


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.


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.


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.


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.