Thoughts: performative game development

There’s a project I’ve been following for a while, simply called v r 3.

It’s the most recent work by Pippin Barr, one of my favorite game people. If you don’t know who he is or what he does, well, Google can help you understand his approach to games better than my words would ever do. You’ll find some (very) amazing stuff on his blog, I promise. </fanboying>

So, v r 3. With this project, Pippin wants to create a digital exhibit of all the water particles available for Unity, including third-party assets. Which is interesting on many levels, especially if you read the flow (hey, a pun!) of thoughts he explained in his blog posts. He’s also following the design process by regularly posting on Facebook and Twitter about his progresses, development issues, and such. So when he recently announced that v r 3 is close to be completed I was sad, because this means no more tweets or posts about v r 3. No more water misbehaving in .gifs. No more funny nor clever comments by other game designers/followers about it. No more reflections (another pun!) regarding this digital museum. As soon as v r 3 will be finished, it will leave a hole in my everyday habits, which included looking at Pippin’s progresses with this project. There will be more contents from him about future works, I believe. But v r 3 will be done and gone.

It’s a very egoistic way to look at things, I realize. For my personal amusement, I desire that someone who has spent a lot of effort in working on a thing just doesn’t finish the said thing. “The show must go on”, to some extent a legacy of our times: when you have something going on you are tied to your audience. If they say “Continue!” you have to. Many thoughts about spectacularization come to mind: talent shows, YouTube, Twitch, early access, game walkthroughs, livetweeting, etc. There’s a whole thesaurus for that. The argument could indeed extend in many directions, as it’s really broad and complex. Yet, my aim now is to ponder a small area of that topic because I see an artistic performance going on here, and feel like a spectator.

Something (Barr, 2017)

Curious about game making that becomes a performance, I looked up online for performative game development, and found an intriguing GDC talk dated 2014 by Vlaambeer developers Rami Ismail and Jan Willem Nijman. I understood that they analyzed the process of developing a game (Nuclear Throne) in front of an audience, livestreaming their work sessions and receiving constant feedback from the community. Something really close to what Pippin is doing, yet not exactly the same. v r 3 is most likely not going to be sold, so there is no monetization involved. Its audience is mostly composed by fellow game devs/critics, not players-customers (an oversimplified definition for the sake of understanding). Lastly, the performative act differs: instead of a livestreaming we have here a trail of bits in the form of Tweets/Facebook posts. So there’s a a posteriori kind of performance, where the artist shows only some selected part of his act to the audience. Hence the meaning, and the possible interpretations of the whole performance are different. Mh.

This is a reasoning that applies with other events too, I guess. Football games, extraordinary events, TV shows…whenever someone posts on social media maybe? And when does it become a performative act? Should there be awareness by the actor?

I don’t know. Not even trying to make a point, to be honest. This is just me giving perhaps too much thought to an event.

Still, I’m pretty sure Pippin is already aware of this, and it has been intentional: he once admitted that his very presence on social networks is an act of performance to some extent (and isn’t it true for all of us, after all?).

But damn! I’ll miss that water nevertheless.

Update 03/29/2017

V r 3 is out, downloadable from Pippin’s blog. You can check it out here.

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Thoughts: Starving for a routine

Lately I’ve been struggling.

I have many projects going on, and even more ideas pending. Yet, I find it difficult to establish a proper productive routine that eventually will lead those projects to conclusion. This frustrates me a lot. It’s one of the reasons I made Perfectionism – Episode 2: I felt the urge to complete something, start to finish, and leave it alone. The jigsaw puzzle reference in the game isn’t accidental. Puzzles have a tangible final state, an ending that draws a line from “undone” to “done”, and I’m indulging a lot in the feeling of reward, of self-fulfillment and personal achievement that comes from a completed puzzle. It’s like typing the final words in a short story you spent months trying to write. Or playing the last mission of a 40+hrs game. Or just delivering an article on time to your editor in chief. Satisfying, to say the least.

However, productivity for me rhymes with routine: I realized that I function better when stuck in a methodical set of activities. It’s common sense. After all, results come through hard work and dedication. Trivial? Yes. Kinda true? Also. The problem with me is that I am prone to distractions, and also tend to play games too much. For example, yesterday I was playing Don’t Starve instead of writing.

dont-starveThis is fine.

Don’t Starve is a survival game made by Klei Entertainment in which the player’s character wakes up in a procedurally generated world filled with random resources. In order to survive as long as possible, the player has to harvest those resources and combine them into elaborate tools, in a loop that eventually comes to an end. Alongside health, there are two more stats to keep track of: sanity and hunger (hence the title).

Ironically enough, it’s a game I love, but never completed (as in, “reached the final state”, if there’s one). While reasoning on how much Don’t Starve reflects my recent inability to complete almost anything, yesterday I also realized that in survival games there’s a rhetoric for a productive routine. The rhetoric potential of video games has been already taken into account (Frasca, 2003; Bogost, 2008), so I’m not certainly claiming anything new. What I see in survival games, however, is how they encourage the player to organize each day, to plan ahead, and to make the most of the scarce resources available. Which is, more or less, what productivity is about.

In survival games time is probably the most crucial resource. To exploit it means to be able to obtain more, and better, results. The clock ticks and you, as the player, cannot stay idle. If you want to survive another day, you must gather or hunt food, build shelter, create tools to be even more productive the next day. There is clearly a representation of primal human nature (and history) at work here, but that’s way beside my point. The rhetoric I talk about emerges when the player realizes that the same rules apply to everyday life, and tasks are one after the other.

dontstarve2

Livin’ the dream

For example, to build a Crock Pot (cooking device) the player requires 3x Cut Stone, 6x Charcoal, 6x Twigs. The latter can be harvested by shrubs, pretty commonly placed next to the starting point. Charcoal is a little bit trickier, as it can be found after chopping down a burnt tree (hence, the player needs a way to lit a fire -> other resources). Cut Stone must be refined by raw Rocks, found after digging with a Pickaxe (again, more resources needed to craft one) on proper sites. But not all these things can be gathered in a single day of the game world. This forces the player to set a list of priorities in her/his mind, answering questions such as: “Should I build a Crock Pot or a Farm first?“, “Can I find these resources nearby or should I move far away?“, “Do I have enough food to survive until this project is complete?“. Then, each day has to be scheduled in detail for an optimization of the time/results ratio. And so on.

Now, this is exactly what a productive routine means to me: set a goal, organize priorities, make the most out of every day, but also make room for leisure (sanity level decreases over time!), food (do-not-starve!), and all the relevant things in your life. The rhetoric of survival games lies there, and if understood could help in establishing a daily set of tasks. I think it’s fundamental, though, to not let the routine in the game overlap or substitute what should be outside it; the sense of fulfillment can be tricky sometimes, and mislead to contentment.

So, well, don’t be hungry…nor foolish.

References:

– Frasca, Gonzalo (2003). “Simulation versus Narrative: Introduction to Ludology.” In The Video Game Theory Reader. Ed. by Mark J. P. Wolf and Bernard Perron. New York: Routledge. 221–37

– Bogost, Ian (2008). “The Rhetoric of Video Games.” The Ecology of Games: Connecting Youth, Games, and Learning. Ed. by Katie Salen. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Media and Learning. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press. 117–40

Thoughts: Global Game Jam ’17

The last few days have been exhausting, but in a very good way: for the first time, I took part in a Global Game Jam event!

I couldn’t resist the urge to participate: since I got my Master’s degree in Digital Games, a lot of stuff happened and I didn’t really make games at all. Plus, I spent a long time pondering how to build a network of game developers, analysts, or just game enthusiasts here in Sardinia. So when I heard that Cagliari had its own jam site this year, my decision was made. And looking back, it was a hellagood decision.

It all started on Friday, with cold winds blowing from the far East. The site was a former tobacco factory of some sort, a huge structure with a lot of separated buildings on the inside. At first it seemed a scary place, but after a while it looked familiar, secure and kind of cozy. We (the jammers!) gathered in a secondary building where a conference room met a cafeteria and a laboratory and an office. Considering that the local University didn’t really cooperate to help the organizers, what we got was way more than fine.

Jpeg

(the jam site in Cagliari)

Organization was cured by Fabbricastorie, a local cultural association armed with a lot of expertise, enthusiasm, and professionalism. For a prime time, I think it went even better than expected: there were food, drinks, clean restrooms, cooperation, and an ear open for suggestions. Which is always a good sign. There’s clearly room for improvement, but let’s face the truth: thanks to them, Sardinia has started a proper network of game developers. From now on, things can just get better and better.

However, as hours passed, my astonishment couldn’t but grow. The vibe there was fantastic: every jammer, from the youngest to the oldest, cooperated with passion, showing mutual respect and interest to learn something new. There was curiosity. There was reliability. There was a sense of membership to a group that, just a few hours before, was a bunch of strangers. It was as I always imagined a Game Jam should be. The most memorable moment, anyway, happened in the night between Saturday and Sunday: a late cross-over chat between jam sites, a video call with my fellow Maltese bros jamming on another island. Mediterranean jammers, assemble!

Obviously, there was trouble as well: making a game in 48hrs is not an easy task, and it gets even more difficult if you are not used to teamwork, or you have to coordinate your efforts with complete strangers. But this is what makes Game Jams so cool, interesting, and challenging. In face of all these difficulties, the satisfaction of having a playable game at the end of the event is indeed priceless.

smart-sharks

(credits to Marta)

My team (we were five, four game designers and an artist) went for a board game with asymmetrical gameplay. Developing something analog felt strange, yet fulfilling. It was a challenge in the challenge – a way to prove our skills on a different ground than the others’. The result of all our efforts on the theme “waves” is a crazy game called Smart Sharks (tentative title), and you can find it here!

To summarize, my first experience at a Global Game Jam was a success. I met some really nice people, had fun, enjoyed very interesting conversations and finished a proper game. Now it’s time to reflect on what I learned, and make plans for the immediate future, but I can’t wait to see what next year’s Jam will bring!