Category Archives: Uncategorized

Art Works

I reformatted the art gallery hosted in this space with some recent examples of 3D work. Only a few pieces right now as a lot of my 3D art time is being taken up with my current MSU project or teaching!

Art Gallery Index

The “art” gallery actually is still mostly my design documents and links but it’s a fresh start for the images section.

Saving Tomb Raider

Crossposted from my LJ.

Apparently, Tomb Raider Underworld, a mediocre game released during a saturated new-gaming season, didn’t do so well. This to me is not a surprise.

I’ve never been interested in playing Tomb Raider games. When I was younger, this was not really because I found Lara Croft all that offensive (though it may have been my stated reason), but it was more because I found all the media coverage of Lara Croft to be somewhat offensive. First of all, no, she was not the first woman to star in a video game. That honor goes to Ms. Pacman, thank you mainstream media.

Now, I’m over the whole Lara Croft thing, but I’m still not interested in playing Tomb Raider games, and that is mostly because of the game. I remember what I did play of the earlier installments – annoyingly exact jumping, frequently getting my too-wide pixel ass stuck in tight rock caverns with no way to move backwards – and the new installments don’t seem to offer anything new from that so I’ll just give them a pass and play more Fallout.

Eidos seems to believe that what they need to do to attract women to Lara is to make her more “female friendly.” Cue an article full of women saying that is stupid. I basically agree.

What they need to do is make the game more fun, but that is going to take a while to percolate, so, allow me to posit the real problem with Tomb Raider… is this. Also, this.

See that? It’s called “there’s nothing interesting to fight in this game.”

So. Here is how you save Tomb Raider, AND attract more women to your game.

1) Don’t change Lara’s body. Lara looks fine the way she is. She should wear fabulous outfits and look great in them. That is part of her job.
2) Add a bad guy. Not just, like, any bad guy, but a totally hot bad guy. A rival relic thief who breaks all the rules. A man with confidence and an evil smarm. A man with a hot, Eurotrash accent. Who takes off his shirt during a cut-scene.
3) Have him maybe summon some ancient creatures with a curse accidentally so when I do have to whip out my pistols there’s something other than an endangered species to fire them at. Something I feel like killing.
4) Vary the set pieces so they travel all over the world, say, chasing this guy, instead of being locked down in one particular temple. Include with this a variety of interesting local costumes for Lara. My husband’s suggestion is to start the game on a cruise ship so Lara has to fight the entire first level in an evening gown. Brilliant.
5) Make Lara in to a good guy who occasionally saves people so we like her a little more, instead of someone who just steals and shoots cats. It might not even hurt to make her a little flirtaous and sexy again. I’ve heard she’s a lot more of an ice queen lately? I haven’t played any of the new games.
6) Add a hot bad guy. Did I say that already? HOT BAD GUY – WOMEN LIKE THAT A LOT

Oh. And it’s OK by me if you go ahead and switch to an M rating so she can show her tits at some point. Or maybe don’t show them, per se, but some Fox-News-Offending righteous sideboob during a love scene would be acceptable. Perhaps a love scene with… I dunno, the hot bad guy.

I will buy this game if you make it, Eidos. Or you could hire me, this is OK.

I live – and I do math

Having a day from work this week I realized I hadn’t updated this blog in a long time. Guess I have a hard time keeping up with being serious, but I’m going to keep trying!

I wanted to use this space to write an analysis of something I found elsewhere on Blogger, rather than using my casual Livejournal for it.

In this article dated last month: The Game Widow Phenomenon, author Wendy Kays claims to crunch the numbers on how many people consider themselves “Game Widows.” A Game Widow is, as I understand her thesis, a person who has a spouses or significant other but feels that they are less important to them than a video game, video games in general, or the video game industry.

She also invites math whizzes out there to correct her numbers if we see a problem. Well, technically I’m not a math whiz, but I have done some game research so let’s see if I can help this out.

I’ll start at the top, and work my way to down to the bottom, which actually contains the error that struck me as most glaring. She writes:

According to a Blizzard Entertainment press release, there were 10 million people playing WoW as of July 2008. According to Nick Yee’s research, the average MMO player is spending 22 hours a week online. Of those gamers, 30.5% of MMO players are male and dating, 26.2% are female and dating, 33.1% are male and engaged, married or separated, and 60.3% are female and either engaged, married or separated.

That last figure to me seemed somewhat suspect, so I went and looked up Yee’s actual charts about demographics, located here and here. If there are more recent charts that have the 60.3% figure, I couldn’t find them – these charts are dated 2003 so they could definitely be said to be out of date.

At any rate, if we were to use these charts, Yee isn’t saying that 60.3% of MMORPG players are female and engaged, married, separated. He’s saying that, of the subset of MMORPG players that ARE female, 57% percent (the number that I found – 60.3% in her argument) are married. From his study we can conclude that, of the MMORPG players that are female, a higher percent of them are married than the MMORPG players that are male.

If we want to simply make a conclusion as to how many players are married, Yee has that number, or at least that number so far as among his respondents: 36%. If we assume that number has remained steady, that means that out of 10 million WoW subscriptions, there are 3,600,000 game widows.

But wait. We can’t go that far yet. First we need to know how many people Blizzard is calculating as users. Is the 10 million figure actual human beings, or just subscriptions? So many times, MMORPG research falls in to the fallacy of “one person, one account,” which is simply not true (it’s particularly pervasive in research about player avatars, to the point where it bothers me a great deal). A minority of very serious WoW (or MMORPG players in general) players are “double-boxing,” meaning that they have multiple accounts (Two, or sometimes more) for the same person. This can be used to cheat the game or simply to get more alts to play with on your favorite server. We also can’t count the amount of people who are goldfarmers who may have accounts, since a goldfarming company may be counted as 20 or so individual users.

It’s something to consider, but we can possibly assume that double-boxers are outliers, and still arrive at the conclusion that 3.6 million WoW players have spouses. Even so, we can’t come to the conclusion that 3.6 million of these people are game widows. We need to do some more math. We should know how Yee calculates his average number of hours per week: here is a chart. He has it categorized to show that the largest amount of players run between less than 10 hours a week up to 30. Some strong outliers that play the game more often pull the overall average to 22 hours per week.

What information don’t we have? The percent of people who play the game a lot, but are married – there’s no crossover demographics research done, and there would need to be to draw a definite conclusion as to who is a WoW widow. We also don’t have the information about whether or not people who have a significant other do their gaming with them – if they did, that might be felt more as a shared activity than something that was “widowing” the spouse.

If we assume that the demographics of marriage have no effect on the amount of hours played, we can cross over these two charts, and I would argue that if someone plays less than 10 hours a week, they probably aren’t making their spouse a widow for the game. So subtract 26.2% of our original game widow figure, at least, to arrive at 2,656,800 game widows, or half the original figure. This is actually a large estimate because of dual-boxing and other behaviors, but it’s about half her original estimate of people who might be considered WoW Widows.

Moving on:

As of July 2008, Sony had sold 140 million PS2 consoles. According to the Entertainment Software Association, 33% of all gamers are women over the age of 18, and 42% are men over the age of 18. America Online (AOL) and the Associated Press did a poll that showed 33% of gamers are married and have kids. This leaves us with about 19 million female and about 15 million male game widow(er)s worldwide.

We need to know how the ESA defines “a gamer.” Otherwise, don’t these numbers already look surprising? The ESA defines a gamer as basically anyone who plays games. That’s why their demographics for “casual gamers” are so high. Their percent of “online gamers” includes people who only play video poker or Scrabble on Facebook. The ESA also doesn’t look for worldwide figures: it specifically states that its survey is of American Households.

That might be irrelevant to the discussion. You could still feasibly widow your spouse for Scrabble or Peggle. But if you’re trying to make a point based on the overall sales of PS2 consoles, then you’re not crossing the demographics well. We can’t draw any conclusions based on the sale of PS2 consoles and the ESA’s gamer demographics.

We do have the figure in her argument that 33% of gamers are married with kids, and with the ESA’s statistics we can figure out how many people in the USA are gamers. We’ll use their 65% of households figure and try to crunch down: 300 million people in the USA, times .65 is 195 million gaming households. 33 percent of that is 64,350,000 million married with children households that game. High figure, but we can’t draw any conclusion whatsoever as to how many people are “widows” here, because we don’t know the average playtime in these households, and we would need that data to make any argument. Just as many of this is probably parents who play with their kids which would be a positive behavior.

Finally, her last paragraph:

According to the IDGA Developer Demographics Report, 88.5% of game developers are male, and 11.5% are female. According to an IDGA Quality of Life white paper, 61.5% of spouses of game developers say they work too much. We can assume, then, that at least 61.5% of game developers have spouses.

This is the most egregious error. You can’t use the figure “61.5 percent of spouses of game developers say they work too much” and transform it in to “61.5 percent of game developers have spouses.” That’s not equivalent. It would be more correct to assume that 100% of the people interviewed as to whether or not their spouses were overworked, were already spouses of game developers! So you’re basing your figure on stating “100% of game developers are married and 61.5% of these people believe their spouse is overworked.” You can’t make that assumption. You first have to find out how many of the 100,000 estimate are actually married, then take 61.5% of that figure instead.

I think I’ve been more thourough about this but welcome additional comments or corrections.

Nobody Cares about Sandy

I suppose I should learn that, even if I have another article idea in my head, it’s not actually likely that I’ll write the next thing that I predicted I would write. But I do want to talk a little about NPC design today, as an aspect of narrative, and how providing context is the key to impact.

My personal belief is that a strong narrative, in a game, RPG, or other situation, will overcome many other shortcomings. At the MIND Lab we are currently doing a small experiment to see if people have different emotional resonance with characters who appear different visually. I believe there is some effect (and my talk about characters and appearances will probably be some future entry), but I believe the effect of narrative is much stronger.

In order to do this experiment I have become familiar with a program called Garry’s Mod. Through Garry’s Mod I also became aware of the webcomic done with the program, Concerned, which has just completed its long story arc and ended its run. I read the entire comic over the course of a few days and I must say it’s a rather good one. I can’t say if it would be as much fun for someone who never played Half Life 2 or not, though I think there’s certainly some meat there even for people who aren’t familiar with the game.

In order to read the “Author’s Notes” about a comic, one has to click on the “Hide/Show Notes” button beneath it. Even if you have no idea what’s going on, the context for what I’m about to discuss occurs in the following comics – One, Two, Three, Four. Slight violence warning on the first comic in that list. If you read the comics, go ahead and read the author’s notes, particularly for the last of the series.

What the author’s done with this small series of comics is make a “life story” up for an incredibly generic throwaway Combine minion, one minion in a series of long minions that you kill during the course of the game. The game itself does its best to dehumanize even these “human” opponents as much as possible, by providing them with a strange look and a very robotic voice. It also dehumanizes them in the narrative. Concerned acknowledges this the majority of the time, but during this small tangent the comic takes a different turn, providing some meaningful context for the death of one of these random NPCs. The author did it as a joke… and was kind of surprised when it wasn’t taken as one. He points out that it’s kind of weird that somehow, while just kidding around, he made some people care about a Combine solider, when he’d killed dozens of other characters off already, “and nary an eyelash was batted.”

It didn’t make it in to my thesis paper, but I’ve seen this principle at work. My thesis involved watching Gamemasters run live roleplaying games – for the uninitiated. If you don’t know much about Gamemasters, you’ll have to read the paper; I hope to have a PDF of the full document soon. During one of the sessions, I distinctly recall the death of a guard named Bob. “A guard is with you; his name is Bob…” says the GM, and everyone had a good laugh because he was an obvious redshirt, a throwaway, a boring Bob in a sea of Bobs, and destined to die.

When Bob did die, however, the GM said something to the effect of, “Well, someone will have to tell his two sons. And his pregnant wife.” And everyone around the table gasped and seemed disappointed. This was an easy enough, throwaway detail to add to Dead Guard Bob, but somehow even giving him that much context in the world around him made him a sympathetic character.

You’ve seen Frank. Now here’s Sandy. The last comic with Sandy is really the only time we get much of a glimpse in to her head… and, then, well… off with it, and she’s barely ever mentioned again.

So why do people care about Generic Minion Frank, but nobody cares about Sandy? Why care about Bob the Guard?

It’s not just the addition of a wife and kids that make the difference here. It could just as easily be a mother or sister, or a group of best friends, or a lonely apartment full of books. Put more simply: Combine Frank’s long tangent gave the character context. Narratively, the author developed a series of people who were around Frank, the friends and life he left behind, a series of hopes and dreams to associate with Frank. In contrast… nobody cares about Sandy. Sandy had no real background. She had PERSONALITY – in so far as she existed to provide a foil for the protagonist of the strip, Frohman, but she had no real backstory. No fears, no hopes and dreams… other than the temporary dream of ditching Frohman. I doubt it was terribly difficult to come up with a backstory for Frank; he had a small family and he apparently loved the ocean. That’s good enough to make him, somehow, more sympathetic than Sandy.

It’s funny how the devil is in the details, and how specificity – even simple specificity – can make Generic Guard #3 suddenly come alive. It’s not always easy to come up with this sort of thing on the fly, if you’re developing an interactive story in particular, but when it comes to creating impact, narrative context makes a huge difference.

Television, Games, and Narrative – Not With a Bang

I relate my experiences with narrative primarily to my personal experience, so in discussing that kind of matter I’ll usually talk about games I’ve played or that I am playing, in as much as I might talk about movies I’ve watched, etc. I’ve at least commented on the blogs of some pretty good academics, so I think this is a suitable psuedo-academic approach. I’ve written a thesis now, so I can say that at least one of the things I’ve written was genuinely academic. When I do talk about my own experiences, I’ll always try to provide references for those who may not share them, though in ramblings I may occasionally tend to fall short.

I was reading a chain of articles today about the ennui of World of Warcraft, and a certain problem with the game seems to be that there is no satisfying narrative conclusion, no “end.”

I believe this is a real problem, and I compare this to the majority of tabletop roleplaying games that I have played. The vast majority of these campaigns end due to outside factors. Perhaps a few players move away, making the game impossible; maybe the gamemaster grows bored and wants to try something else, or runs out of time to run the game. Maybe a player in the game becomes too powerful, and “breaks” it, rendering further gameplay unsatisfying for the group, or, maybe the challenges become too punitive and aversarial, causing players to walk out on the judge. It is very rare that a game of this nature comes to what might be termed as a satisfying narrative conclusion. That is because, I believe, HAVING that end requires both a willingness to prepare for it, to build toward that finale and make it reasonable and satisfying in the telling, AND, the more difficult aspect of “letting go.”

This is also comprable to a phenomenon seen mostly in network television, that of “jumping the shark.” People make jokes about particular games and stories jumping the shark all the time in my circle, but what’s most important to understand about the shark is that he is only seen in hindsight. One can never really, accurately, say, “we are jumping the shark, right this very second,” except in jest, but one CAN look backward and see the fin. Those television series that never jump the shark largely do not jump because they end too soon. Avoiding the shark requires the ability to recognize when you are ahead, artistically, and then quit there. I am thinking here of Firefly, for example, which did not jump the shark, not even with the movie, because it was cancelled and undersupported by the network and powers that be, and did not develop past its narrative peak because it did not have the opportunity. Beast Wars Transformers was cut a season short and thus, though it had to pack a lot of action in to two last episodes, did not definitively jump the shark. The aforelinked Jump the Shark website would like you to believe that The Simpsons never jumped, but I respectfully disagree with the voters there. It’s WELL over; I just can’t pinpoint the precise moment in this case. It went over as a result of an unwillingness to end, and let go, as the networks still had that particular cow to milk (but were happy to cancel Firefly).

This translates to other media as well. Calvin and Hobbes – artist quit while he was ahead – satisfying narrative conclusion with a heartbreaking last panel – comic never jumped. The Far Side – quit while it was ahead – never jumped. Garfield – still going on, has completely jumped, and is now mostly suitable as an internet meme.

There are, generally speaking, only two ways for long-running properties to end. They can end “too soon,” going out with a bang (or even a quiet farewell the way Calvin and Hobbes went out, but with a satisfying and dignified conclusion), or, they can end too late, going on and on until they peter out like so many tabletop campaigns I have been involved in. To steal from the greats, there is either the bang or the whimper.

The Bang is preferable, but much more difficult to coordinate. An MMORPG (and a MUSH or MUD, to pull out a trend) can by its very nature only end with a Whimper. That is because the very business model of a massive game is to work on player retention. There is no way to create a satisfying narrative conclusion for a game when you are still desperately trying to lure new people in to your world even as its sun is dying.

I may have my history wrong, but I believe that an attempt at going out with a bang was tried at least once on a MUSH, or on Megaman MUSH, the site where I am currently administratively employed. I’ve not yet gotten around to indexing this timeline file, but scroll down to the date “7 July 2213” if you click. The then-director of the game ran a story where he literally put the fate of the game on the line, and, if the story itself was not successful in engaging players, it would result in a “loss” scenario for the world and he would close the game. (To say whether or not the entire world being destroyed is narratively satisfying is another topic, but it is at least an end with some gumption.) Of course, the story was successful, players were retained, the world saved, and the game goes on and on for many more years after that.

Bold to try, but any MUSH or MMORPG that goes “out” will go out because it peters out. There’s no other way, sadly, for this to happen. If the game is still retaining players and interest, it will continue to thrive. If the game is no longer retaining players and interest, it will die the slow, ennui death. There is no marketing-related reason for an MMO to do anything other than hang on to its customers for as long as possible, forsaking narrative and artistic integrity in favor of the long, slow strategy; the eventual loss of interest and the last, frail gasp of breath.

Best Foot Forward

I believe I will finish my Masters Thesis this week.

Writing a Masters Thesis was hard and took a long time. It is not just that the paper and writing the paper is hard, but also that the paperwork and overhead involved is very hard. A lot of signatures need to be signed and papers need to be handed to various people, and Human Subjects Use must be authorized, and all sort of things that make writing the paper itself seem like the easy part. Still, I have gotten good feedback about the paper, and I feel it’s time to wrap it up and move on to the next thing.

My current place of employment in the Mind Lab has asked me for an updated bio. And I wrote:

Amanda Flowers is recieving a Masters degree in Telecommunication Information Studies and Media. Originally from Ohio, she recieved her undergraduate degree in Computer Art from Bowling Green State Unversity in 2002. She has worked with the MSU GEL Lab and the Mind Lab on various game projects for use in experiments and research. Her primary interests include digital games, games in education, interactive storytelling, and roleplaying environments.

And then I thought… well… that doesn’t say anything about my web design. But, it’s a start. My web design itself has gotten spotty since I’m doing so much of it professionally that my personal pages suffer from a little lack of polish. You can see the under-construction feel of all my current things.

From a more honest standpoint, I might be equally recognizable on the web as “that girl who wrote that really long Beast Wars RPG,” or “the Megaman MUSH Web person,” or “short-lived Gargoyles fan author.” I’ve recently drifted in to an attempt to become more known in the City of Heroes fanart community as well, so perhaps we’ll see more City of Heroes web content on SecondTruth soon.

I work three jobs right now. Yet sometimes I still feel like I could be doing so much more… funny, how that works.