Social and family gaming #2: History – How Dani Bunten Berry has said it all already

Well I am kind of sorry for the overly flashy title of this entry. But to be honest I am kind of sad how the gaming industry has developed with regards to social gaming.

Today one really has to look long and hard for game designs that put the social relating of gamers in the foreground. This is an odd critique because I’m sure many people will tell me that we are in the exploding age of “social games” which is “casual games” + “social networks” and surely a social network is nothing but social relating!

Well, yeah, but that’s not what I mean. I do cheer for these developments. But these developments happen kind of away from the mainstream gaming industry, or if they relate to the mainstream, are newly formed satellites to tapped a newly discovered market. Because “social games are exploding right now“, it’s 2008. But it is another reason to be said, because “social games” with another definition already made a kind of splash back in the 80s.

Dan Bunten aka Dani Bunten Berry is a very prominent figure in the history of game development. Surely loads of people know her, and if not loads know games of her. And there is a persistent thread through her work: social and multi-player gaming. 

I’ll be quoting or loosely refering to loads of sources. Most notably  the charming laudatio as part of the CGDA Lifetime achievement award (1998, she died shortly thereafter from lung cancer). Pre-AIAS hall of fame induction interviews  of industry colleagues (2007). Essential late speeches with the titles “Imaginary Playmates in Real-time or Why Online Games Suck” (1997), “Game Design Memoir“, “Online Multiplayer Games” (1996), a Salon article/tribute (2003), the Halycon Days interview, Interviews on World of M.U.L.E., 1-UP’s “The 50 Essentials – 19 M.U.L.E.“. I’m sorry for the heavy sourcing.

Dani Bunten Berry’s most frequenlty quote is this:

“No one on their death bed ever said, I wish I’d spent more time alone with my computer.”

She was a champion of what today we would call multi-player games. In fact she was the main pioneer of the notion in the form we know it today. But I’d argue she also pioneered “social games” in the sense that social relating of gamers was important.

In this sense the quote is to be understood, but it actually goes deeper, it not only talk to the need to having spend time with other people being important (and more important than high-scoring solo) but also it at the same time is a catchy one-liner for what she believed to be “what gamers want”. It’s quite radical if one traces the mainstream gaming development since the 80s. But it really shouldn’t be.

If one traces the chain of games she released you’ll find indeed this one persistent thread. Multiple people play the game. It binds multiple people to a joint activity. The first game she released “Wheelers Dealers” shipped with a button controller for 4 people. This was the first ever multi-player controller and it was a flop at the time (1978 for AppleII).

But the game Bunten is most praised for is M.U.L.E., a multiplayer economy game with action elements. The game uses resource competition and market auctioning to create a competitive setting but already contains other elements as well, such as random disasters or rewards. Despite it’s aweful graphics, even fit the time (1983) it was an instant classic. In MULE the player’s decisions interplay with other players decisions immediately. It’s competitive but it has a subtle (and possibly often missed) cooperative layer.

After commercial solo-play smash hits (7cities, heart of africa) Dani Bunten Berry left solo-only games competely (1986) and produced probably the first multi-player only game in “Robot Rascals”. What’s so interesting about this project is that she spoke about the importance of accessibility here already, she discovered how one can make the process, discovery and learning skill interesting (something that later devs would not know of and hence call the “journey an f–ing lie” mostly because of a lack of ingenuity how to make the journey interesting). She said she wanted to think of it as a “family game” though realized that people weren’t looking for family games back then. Hence once certainly could give her also some credit to have pioneered that concept!

Further innovations, like the first commercial modem game in “Modem Wars” (1988) followed. Like other innovative concept (Rascals, Wheelers Dealers) it was a commercial flop, way ahead of its time. Two more model games followed with more success, and Global Conquest (1992) introduced what today we would call RTS.

Bunten was an innovator on many fronts, but I want to keep with the social, because not only I but many other commentators do see this as the common thread. The 1997 CGDA award laudatio says this:

Nobody has worked harder to demonstrate how technology can be used to realize one of the noblest of human endeavors, bringing people together.

This again is a deep quote. Because it begs the design question: What would bring people together to play?

Let me take this question as the operative definition of what I mean by “social games”. If you replace people with “family” you get “family games”. This is of course different from the newer definition that “casual games” + “social networks” = “social games” but bear with me… I think this is the richer and more immediately constructive definition.

So what did Dani Bunten Berry have to say about game design?

From her 1997 keynote:

I started out my career as speaker [..] in 1990. I told everyone that if we want to reach the mass market in this industry we’re going to have to become part of the main stream and stop being such nerds. I recommended that they go home, meet their neighbors, get married, have kids and to stop spending all their time alone in front of computers.

Be “people focused” not “thing focused”.

What kicked me into motion was a conversation with a “marketing specialist” at a recent online game conference. He said something innocently grandiose about how great it is that the online service he worked for has got the full gamut of games to cover all possible demographic groups.

You have no clue about demographics even if you say otherwise.

There were (and still are) numerous possibilities for social interaction and interesting play with the shared computer kind of design. However, there were a number of logistical issues related to getting groups of people playing games around a single computer (such as, it’s not usually centrally located and people need to be “invited”). Online games “fix” these problems while still offering several of the social advantages of multi-player games.

It’s nice to share in front of one game, but networking lets remote people share it too.

What I mean in my title, “Imaginary Playmates in Real-time”, is that for nearly all intents and purposes the current crop of games (and even the next crop that I’m aware of) have simply taken standard computer game genres from the pre-online era and replaced the AI opponents with humans.

Industry assumtion is: PVP solves tuning problems and dumb AI. She observes: You haven’t designed an inherently multi-player game.

If you’re playing one of those games, your interaction with those humans is at the same level as it was with the AI ones. What we’re experiencing now is just the fact that people make better opponents. They will do more interesting things than any algorithm. Those of us who have been pushing multi-player games for years have known this part.

PVP is trivial, you make the opponent into the proxy for the AI.

It’s just that this is such a tiny aspect of what having human playmates can mean. People can make you feel welcome and accepted. People can teach you and share with you. They can touch you emotionally.

Being a playmate is about bonding, about the ability to share and teach. And the ability to be emotional.

She goes on to critique why solo play ends up designed against human preferences. The argument goes roughly like this. AI is hard and dumb. Human choices need to be limited to what the AI can react to algorithmically. Replacing the AI then with humans has limited the interaction to the algorithmical and not the sensory-human. Rather compelling train of thought.

Another opportunity that I believe the online medium offers is a new demographic landscape. Although to look at the “successful” games online at this point you’d think we were stuck with the 18 to 35 year old male audience that populates the CD games world, it ain’t so. The demographic of web-browsing (see “Online Magazine”) has an average age of 33 and is 31% female. They come primarily from educational and computer-related occupations. Almost 60% have a college degree or better. They are information consumers and have an average household income of $59,000 (these two numbers make advertisers excited).

The original subtitle of this blog entry was “How Dani Bunten Berry lost to testosterone”. I decided to ditch it for a less edgy one. But this quote gets to some of this. If I look at many current online game announcements, they still are the 18-35 male audience demographics, onlineified. Anyone telling me the thought of highly educated tech savvy females when coming up with Age of Conan or Warhammer? Anyway, Bunten was very much attuned to the fact that even in 1997 the online demographics wasn’t the canonical CD buying one. Most of the industry must have slept through it though. Or they were 18-35 year old males themselves, making games for themselves.

She goes on to give specific design recommendations. Let me pick out a few more unusual ones:

* “Zero sum” is bad. Games where I win and you lose are bad. Worse still is “I win and all the rest of you lose”. Notwithstanding the current cultural obsession with endzone strutting by winners, losers do not enjoy themselves and if you can help take the sting out of it, you should. Alliances, cooperative play, ranked “winners” rather than “A winner” with a bunch of losers are all options.

Don’t turn people into losers. We can today ask if PK/PVP achieved this and why designers didn’t hear this? Player-looting PK is violating this badly. But why have it? Bunten implicitly knows that promoting one winner too badly is bad for everybody. People don’t play to lose, they play to play!
Strutting your win is kind of anti-social.

* Strategies need “wiggle room”. People have different personal styles and when playing against each other it’s great to let them “do it their own way” rather than a single approach that all must follow. If possible you should balance the game such that a strategic planner for instance might not always beat the joystick jockey or the detailed tactical type. A game that allows for diverse people to play diverse ways is always best.

Allow diversity! People are different, let the play regardless. Don’t punish people for their differences.

* Court your newbies. Nothing will destroy a player’s interest in your game quicker than being humiliated a few times when they are just trying to figure out what to do. If possible build in inducements for advanced players to help newbies in order to get something to advance further in the game environment — like taking an “apprentice” might be the only path to “master rank”. At the very least try to make starting as safe on player’s egos as you can.

Make it easy to enter, but Bunten’s vision also includes: promote helpful attitudes and make it social to enter as well! Not what one sees entering many MMOs today.

* Use time limits. Whenever possible design your game so it can be played within a fixed time limit. This will allow people to schedule their involvement. A game you can play a couple of times in an evening would be a good design goal. If you can’t end the game at specific times try to at least facilitate a graceful exit opportunity such that a player quits while they are having fun and not after they’re so exhausted they’ll never come back again.

Respect people’s time and schedule. And their desire to take a break/quit to RL.

What specifically she meant is elaborated more in an online article:

When possible, end the game after a certain amount of time. Time limits let players schedule their involvement to fit their schedules and their budgets. Games that drag on and on will let players lose interest and drop out (a disruption to the players) or they finish this game but don’t play again (a disaster to the designer). It’s better to have players finish a game and ask for another play than to go away exhausted and not come back. Games that last 30 minutes is a good goal for a single play and 2 hours should be considered a maximum.

Hmm 30 minutes at a time, and no more than 2 hours max. I guess the 4 hour raid marathons of WoW could learn something here. In fact respecting people’s time and make them come back often but stay on shorter is the standard idea of what today we call “casual games”. The idea to worry about people’s time in game was already there with Bunten in 1997.

* Include chance. Although most players hate the idea of random events that will destroy their nice safe predictable strategies, nothing keeps a game alive like a wrench in the works. Do not allow players to decide this issue. They don’t know it but we’re offering them an excuse for when they lose (“It was that damn random event that did me in!”) and an opportunity to “beat the odds” when they win.

Randomness is there not for varied difficulty only and less predictability. More so it serves a social function! Not making people feel too bad about losing by giving them a neutral and uncontrolable reason for failing!

* Allow handicapping. Let players handicap themselves if they want. Some players are willing to play with one hand behind their back so let them. (The most common use of this will be parents and kids playing together).

Again note the direct reference to “family play”. Again Bunten realizes that people can be different but the goal should be to allow them to sensibly play together. I don’t see this used much at all.

Basically Bunten displays an array of important things to consider when social play is at stake: Don’t allow anti-social outcomes (don’t let one persistently be and feel like the “loser”), promote ability to play together (either via time, or via handicapping), promote helpfulness and positive social play. It may be a tad extreme to say that she has said it all already, but certainly she has said a lot more than one sees in a lot of contemporary designs.

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