Electing virtual societies

I often like to think about how technology could change society in the future. I don’t mean smaller smartphones or bigger SSDs. I mean changing societies and cultures. Wikipedia has basically destroyed encyclopaedias as we knew them. Mobile internet has radically changed the way we socially interact.

VoteAustralia is about to have an election. On one hand you have Labor, who are modern, more liberal on the political spectrum, but also possibly untrustworthy given their infighting. On the other hand you have the Coalition, who are very traditional, potentially to the point of being backwards. A fair chunk of the community would be aghast if the Coalition get in, based on their stances on immigration, climate change, same-sex marriage and telecommunications. Conversely, a fair chunk of the community would be aghast if Labor get in, based on their stances on immigration, climate change, same-sex marriage and budgets.

Rational, scientific debate hasn’t really helped. I was thinking this morning: how could technology fix this? Continue reading “Electing virtual societies”

Protecting against Fast Followers

Recently indie group Nimblebit called out games giant Zynga for copying their game Tiny Tower pretty blatantly. Zynga employees call this “fast following” – someone achieves success in the mobile or social games arena, and Zynga acquires or produces pretty much the same game. There are some nasty specifics to the Nimblebit saga, but I don’t want to cover that. Nor do I want to look at Zynga’s history (and current practice) of doing this. I wanted to free-think on the question: “What can an indie developer do to prevent fast following?”[1. I’ll use the term “fast following” throughout to avoid the complexities of saying “copycats”. I got the term from Video Games Hot Dog, but apparently it’s a well-known concept.]

There’s nothing you can do about people making a similar game in the same vein. Intellectual property law won’t protect you. Nor should it. People should be free to be inspired by things and produce their own versions. We don’t want to discourage competition because if you’re worried about someone creating a better game in that genre, you’re tacitly admitting you don’t have much faith in your game. You have to do things that make you happy and proud.

We want to protect against nefarious people who essentially want to rebrand our game as their own. By this I mean more studios examining a game, copying all the features and behaviours and replicating that in their own code. Reskinning, renaming or repackaging is too blatant for this discussion. Fast followers are slavish imitations that require a few things to work:

  • A popular game;
  • Easily copyable technology;
  • Enough scope in implementation to put your own branding on it without having to do actual game design or anything too creative.

These are the areas we need to disrupt to protect against fast followers. I know it’s a grey area between copying and imitation, but I hope you understand what we’re defending against.

Easy solutions

The easiest solution is to not have a game. Or have a terrible one. Fast followers are motivated by money, and there’s no money in terrible games.

The next easiest thing is to send in the lawyers. Let them fight it out. This is boring and expensive. And it won’t protect you in the future. You certainly don’t want to try to restrict how the world interacts with your game via restrictive EULAs. You might vaguely disrupt a fast follower, but you’ll equally disrupt genuine customers and people who want to mod your game, which is a net loss.

Note that all the DRM in the world won’t help you. Fast followers can just sit there and play the game to learn enough to copy it.

Mechanical solutions

The first easy solution dealt with the first requirement for fast followers. Let’s consider the second requirement: “Easily copyable technology”.

By technology I mean both game mechanics and actual technology in the game. Here we are protecting against fairly lazy reverse engineering. Again, there’s little you can do against people who open your game up in a debugger or disassembler and figure out the inner workings of your game. That said, that approach isn’t easy for the fast followers.

Simple gameplay mechanics make it easy to comprehend what’s going on under the hood, and thus easy to copy. This was Tiny Tower’s curse. Tiny Tower had an extremely limited set of gameplay actions. At best you could react to whatever the game had provided. You could speed things up temporarily through a series of microtransactions. There was very little that you could do to permanently unthrottle the gameplay.

I played Tiny Tower for a while. I angrily deleted it because of its fairly obvious attempts to squeeze money from you. But before that I thought, “Surely, someone could write a more fun Tiny Tower! Maybe even I could do it!” I didn’t, of course, but it was conceivable. For good or bad, Tiny Tower’s simplicity made it vulnerable to copying.

More complicated gameplay is more complicated to copy, especially if they don’t have access to the source code. This goes double for complicated technology. Trying to copy the technology in id’ Rage would be nearly impossible. Even though people in the industry generally get the idea of Megatexture, the years of expertise and technology that went into making their game engine would humble many a dev team.

Another example would be the advanced AI in a game like Facade. This was (and remains) cutting-edge stuff. The amount of work required to sufficiently emulate the storytelling in Facade is enormous. Faking it would likely give you a game not as good as Facade. It wouldn’t be worthwhile to fast follow it.

The Specifics

Gameplay is a funny thing to try to regulate to protect oneself from fast followers. In some situations, like first-person shooters, game mechanics are almost dictated by the genre. Messing with the gameplay too much might give you a substandard shooter.

One way in how you can protect yourself is via content. Write excellent content and there’s no way they can replicate it without obviously copying it. Tiny Tower has very little content, so it was easy to copy. Something like Portal would be relatively easy to copy in terms of game mechanics, but the writing and level design is so excellent, you’d have to come off second best.

Same goes for Skyrim, or any Bioware game. There’s so much excellent content there you’d die just transcribing it all.

And it’s not just AAA titles. Something like Kingdom of Loathing is comprised mostly of writing. Lots and lots of writing. You could copy the game mechanics, but you couldn’t copy the writing (because of copywriting, and their unique, humorous style). Some have tried, and provided shinier graphics, but ultimately failed.

Another strong way to prevent fast following is to have your gameplay and content deeply intertwined with your technology. An example of a series of games that doesn’t have this property is Zynga’s series of Farmville, Cityville and so forth. Each is more-or-less a reskin of the other. Mechanics are similar (not to say they are the same, Zynga does evolve somewhat). They could create a Spaceville game that worked much the same. This is good for franchises – players of previous titles can easily pick up the newer titles since they’ve already learned the mechanics and interface.

A game like Shadow of the Colossus would be a positive example for this idea. The technology involved in bringing the visuals to colossus-killing was quite an achievement, and it was a direct requirement of the gameplay. You could perhaps make a cheaper version without the technology that corresponded to an old-school platformer, but that’s more a cash-in than a fast follow.


The industry is in a bit of a stir given big companies like Zynga are adopting strategies of much smaller outfits, like copycatting, fast following and the like. This is amidst all the financial disruption of microtransaction models, cheaper prices for online games, and cloud-based game rentals like Gaikai. The games industry is adapting, but I think the positive outcome is that for games companies to survive, a great strategy is to make unique, creative games. It’s not easy, but if it were easy, we wouldn’t be worrying about Zynga in the first place.


Virtual economies

Virtual economies and the shenanigans that go along with them have been on my radar recently. Not for any real reason – it’s just how the world goes. I find them interesting. They’re a nice blend of really old school psychology and economics, recent tech, and Internet sociology. What’s more, you can interact with them on a scale you can understand, unlike “real-world” economies. Continue reading “Virtual economies”

The Surface of Art

I wax a bit philosophical about Art and its relation to video games. This was prompted by Brian Moriarty’s “Apology for Roger Ebert” at GDC.

Art is the surface of water between stillness and chaos. It is what exists between the sudden splash and the soft stillness.

When chaos subsides, we find art in the after-pause. No great art is created in the midst of a war. No fine lines are drawn in an earthquake. But when the dust has settled and we have time to look, we can see great beauty, tragedy, comedy or humanity. This is where art can flourish.

When stillness pervades, we find art in the splash. When apathy or tradition dam up humanity into a stagnant pond, great art can punch through the stones and create sweeping waves of inspiration. More subtly, it can be casting an object into a still lake, a quick splash here but the ripples spread all over. The object might be a porcelain urinal, a babbling Irishman, a deformed monstrosity, or a goddamned mess, whose sudden entrance to the stillness may be seen as absurd, or as the discarding of trash. But the casting of today’s trash can be history’s treasure.

Art through the ages, I think, has – to a degree – understood the relationship between stillness and chaos. You can see it in the stone sculpture that looks like it’s alive, dried painted eyes that follow you around the room, fixed words on a page whisking drawing you through old London town, coils of celluloid recreating the movement of life in the same way forever. For the most part, however, we have leaned on a tradition that the Thing of Art (the artifact) is still. A sculpture is made of stone. Paint is dry. Type is set. Film is cut into its final edit. Even in the performing arts, there is the idea of the script, the choreography, the notes. Where these artifacts escape their stillness, there you find art. As the postmodernists rightly point out, the audience see movement and the chaos in this stillness, and thus the art. The artifact is not the art. Nevertheless we say that the person who created the artifact, created the art. They are the artist.

Enso Black 8/20

Buddhists have recognized this sort of thing throughout the universe. As the philosopher Alan Watts put it, stillness and chaos “go-with” each other. They rely on each other for existence. You can’t have one without the other, and to focus on one to the exclusion of the other is detrimental. Too much stillness is stagnation. Too much chaos is noise. The Middle Way balances both stillness and chaos, and understanding this relationship is where Art is.

In a play, there is a script and direction. Actors may faithfully but methodically reproduce this and it might be entertaining or insightful, but it won’t be art. They may forget all their lines and ad-lib like crazy, which again may be delightful and moving, but it won’t be art. The best play is one faithful to the script, but each actor brings something of their own.

So in a circuitous way, we come to today. The dominant creative industry (in terms of cash flow) is video games. It’s new money as the industry is still young. Even the “Old Money” people like EA have to fight for their income. We can draw parallels to writing, illustration, cinema and song. We wonder if perhaps games too can be art. Roger Ebert (and Brian Moriarty) say no. Others say yes.

I think we are in great chaos.  The computer industry is one of the most disruptive and disrupted industries the world has ever seen. People can buy hardware and software that can provide any artistic outlet you’d want, for ever dropping prices. The Internet age means that anyone can show their art to anyone, anywhere, any time, on any device, to numbers that we can hardly fathom. Computer games can replicate experiences seen in other medias, and are slowly shaking off the artifice of their own nascent forms. As an art form, we haven’t yet had the chance for the chaos to die down for us to experience the art that is the new computer life. We don’t really understand what we’re working with.

Moreover, the key component of interactivity in computer games means that our tradition of the fixed artifact of Art is broken. We’ve been cognizant of this issue, but we’re still coming to grips with it in a practical sense. We still say a movie is art. It isn’t. Watching a movie is art. If no-one watches it, it cannot be art. In the same way, a video game isn’t art. Playing a video game can be. It might be a long time before we get over this – we still have troubles calling food art because the experience is so individual.

And because there is an entertainment industry, we get confused by the converse – if everyone watches a movie, it doesn’t make it great art. It makes it great business, but the chance of it being art is exactly the same as if it made no money.

Nevertheless, the prominence of the entertainment industry means that there will continue to be great improvements in technology and the uptake of technology. When people are comfortable with the tech, we will have an opportunity to turn it into new kinds of art. Dynamic forms of art that give us a better appreciation of the interplay of stillness and chaos, artist and audience, subject and object.  Games that are not just exploring within limited rulesets but providing new experiences for each player. Arguably we have this now, but we should strive for more. We should embrace the opportunities that computer-based art can provide. We can still always have our shoot-em ups and fantasy RPGs. You can still have rom-coms after you have Citizen Kane. We just need to go hand-in-hand with our computers to that place in the middle of stillness and chaos. That place called art.

A question of focus

I recently watched a fascinating TED talk by Simon Sinek on starting with “why” rather than “how” or “what”. It gave me a chance to think over some of the things in my life and evaluate possible reasons why they succeeded or failed. While I definitely need to meditate more on Sinek’s ideas to see if I completely agree with it, I thought it might be interesting to share these evaluations of successes or failures and thrash out the idea. This blog is a place for me to discuss my many creative and technical projects, so I thought I might do it here, and focus just on projects (it’s not as fun subjecting personal experiences to philosophical framework in public 😉 ).

Continue reading “A question of focus”